There comes a point in our beauty lives where we take a look at our collection of Dior Lip Glow Oils or endless stacks of Tom Ford Eye Colour Quads Eyeshadow Palette and ask ourselves the age-old question: “Is this still safe to use? Does make-up expire?”
While some things are forever—diamonds, best friends, the classic impact of red lipstick—the sad truth is that a single tube of crimson pigment was not designed to last a lifetime. No matter how long we hold onto the pretty palettes and other beloved make-up we’ve hoarded over time, the sad truth is that beauty products do in fact expire. And it’s something we should all be mindful of, for the sake of our skin health.
Below, experts give us the lowdown on expired products and why and when to toss that old make-up. You may want to start your make-up clean out sooner rather than later.
What happens when you use expired make-up?
The first thing to consider when you use make-up past its expiration date are the health risks. Krupa Koestline, cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Innovation Labs, lists infections, contact dermatitis, and exposure to microbes that could result in other medical issues as just some of the side effects to be aware of. Margarita Lolis, MD, New Jersey-based board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon, agrees and adds that you may also experience more breakouts, irritation, and—in rare cases—chemical burns.
“Preservatives in make-up have a limited lifespan,” explains Lolis. “Once they break down, the product is more susceptible to microbial growth.” Infections are especially likely with expired eye make-up as they harbour bacteria over time; products such as eyeliners and mascara are used so close to the eye and its moist environment, which makes them perfect breeding grounds for bacteria and fungi that can cause conjunctivitis, styes, pink eye, and other eye infections. While perfumes are unlikely to cause harm if expired, she does say that a change in chemical composition of the fragrance might cause skin to become more sensitive to ingredients and cause irritation.
The other thing you have to consider is the efficacy. She goes on to say that over time, the chemical composition of make-up can change, which can cause the product to not apply as evenly as before (which can also lead to product buildup in your pores and lead to acne) or cause colour to not look as vibrant.
But don’t panic just yet. If you happen to use a blush or foundation after it’s expired, you might not experience any side effects. According to Koestline, it all depends on the formulation. “Make-up products that do not directly touch your eyes and/or lips and products that do not contain any water (anhydrous) can be used safely beyond their date of expiration,” she says. “It is not ideal, but if care is taken to minimise contamination, the risks of infection from expired make-up are quite low.”
The one product that has very little downside, at least health-wise, when used after an expiration date is nail polish. She explains that nail polish formulations have several preservatives to prevent bacterial growth, it is rare that someone will get a skin infection or skin irritation from using an expired polish.
How to tell if make-up has expired
“It is important to look at cosmetics kind of like foods,” says skin care specialist Kristina Holey, whose work focuses on how cosmetic formulation affects skin anatomy. Using expired skin care products and make-up can be dangerous to the health of our complexions. The easiest way to know when to throw an eye shadow or concealer away is to look at the packaging. Most come with a tiny image of an open-lid pot with a number like “12m,” which means the product has a lifespan of twelve months. Those are the make-up expiration dates that you should look. But so much of a product’s freshness depends on how it’s stored and used (which we’ll get into later).
If you can’t find that label anywhere on your product, there are a few clear signs that signal it’s time to say goodbye. The most obvious is visible mould or yeast growth. Koestline says this will be pretty easy to notice as it will have a black, grey, or green growth on top of the product, similar to what you might find on mouldy bread. Other signs, she says, include a weird taste or smell, having visible separation in liquid formulas (such as oil sitting on top, several layers forming, or you need to shake before using it), or a distinct colour change.
General lifespan of products
Depending on where on your face you use a make-up product or what the formulation is, expiration dates will differ from each other. Longer shelf lives are afforded to products that aren’t water-based. “Products without oil or water still have a lifespan,” Holey says. “They can harbour bacteria and the pigments themselves can begin to break down over time.” Lolis and Koestline break down a general guideline for each product that’s pretty easy for everyone to follow:
Lipstick: One to three years
Koestline says that for both cream and liquid formulations, you have to look at if the product contains water or not. If anhydrous (does not contain water), then it’s good for about three years if used with a lip brush to avoid contamination. If the formula does contain water, it’s good for up to a year.
Lip Gloss: One year
As far as lip products go, gloss has the shortest shelf life. Because the applicator brush touches your lips directly, Koestline says that you’ve got about one year of use before it can go bad. But this is only true if it is anhydrous; glosses made with water will expire before that.
Blush: Three years
Whether you’re using a liquid blush, powder blush, or cream blush, unless the applicator directly touches the skin and is anhydrous, Koestline says that you may even be able to extend blush to three years.
Contour or Bronzer: Three years
Similar to her assessment on blush expiration dates, Koestline says a contour product can last even up to three years depending on the formulation. The same can be applied towards bronzer products, which are generally applied on the same areas that you would place contour or blush.
Foundation: Two years
Cream, powder, or liquid foundation has a long shelf life of about two years. For liquid formulas, Koestline says that if it starts to separate is when you need to toss it.
Eyeshadow: One to three years
Koestline says eyeshadow that contains any water should only be used for a year since you’re using it close to the eye area. If anhydrous, which includes most powder formulas, it can last anywhere from two to three years.
Eyeliner: Three to six months
Because eyeliner is applied so close to the eye area or directly on the waterline, both Lolis and Koestline say that they should be replaced every six months. “[It’s] too risky since the applicator touches eyes directly [and there’s a] high risk of infection,” explains Koestline. While Lolis says that a pencil eyeliner may last longer than a liquid eyeliner if you sharpen it, it’s better to err on the side of caution.
Mascara: Three to six months
Similar to eyeliner, Lolis and Koestline say that mascara has a high risk of infection because of how close we use it to our eyes. You can expect a shorter shelf life than most products of three to six months.
Concealer: Six months to two years
Lolis says that liquid concealers generally last anywhere from six months to a year, cream formulas for 12 to 18 months, and powders for two years. Koestline says that as long as the applicator doesn’t directly touch the skin and if there is no separation in the formula, any concealer you use can be good for up to two years.
Highlighter: Six months to two years
Both Lolis and Koestline look at highlighters the same way they look at concealers when it comes to gauging expiration dates, with the longest being two years.
Nail Polish: Three+ years
Since you don’t have to worry about nail polish causing irritation, you can prolong use until you see separation in the product or if the colour looks strange on your nail. But Koestline says that nail polish is generally good for about three years, sometimes even more.
Fragrance: Three to five years
Lolis says that fragrances can last a really long time, especially when stored correctly. Koestline says that once the scent starts to change in colour or smell differently, then it’s probably time to toss it.
How to store make-up properly
Knowing the expiration date is just half the battle; you’ll want to store products correctly to get the most out of their shelf life. Beauty products should be kept in a cool, dry place, which may mean outside the bathroom, and certainly not deep in a handbag that’s left steaming in the car. For face creams and foundations, which usually maintain their quality for three months, Holey insists on dipping in only with clean hands. Unless the product is packaged with an airtight pump, bacteria on your fingers and moisture from the shower can contaminate the bottle.
Make-up enthusiasts can relax their shoulders and exhale, because, according to Holey, using products regularly means you’ll likely run out before there’s ever an issue. But even for all the minimalists out there, you don’t have to panic about letting a product go to waste. Just follow these guidelines and purchase products with the intention of actually using them. Your face (and bank account) will thank you.
This article was first published in Vogue.com.