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Spring Cleaning Your Skin Care: Why you need to get rid of old or expired products

We’ve all been there. Looking at the medicine cabinet or in the basket by the sink, and seeing a crowd of bottles, tubes, jars, and pots that are in various stages of use—and some that you don’t remember buying at all. You know there’s probably at least some of them that you should just get rid of by now, but which ones? How long does skin care really last? And why is it so hard to part with unused products?

Spring and fall are ideal times to tackle the task of streamlining your skin care and checking your products for age and effectiveness. It’s a time when you’re probably already thinking about switching up your regimen for the changing seasons and buying beach-worthy sunscreen or a deep-hydrating treatment for winter lips. We’ve got some suggestions to help you get organized.


Be strong—your skin will thank you!

If healthy skin is your goal, your best bet is to find your tried-and-true products and stick to using them on a regular schedule. You’ll use them up well within their peak performance so you’re not wasting money, and you’re not undermining your own best efforts with products that might be hurting your skin more than helping. Here’s how:

  • Anything in a pot or jar that can be touched by your fingers can get contaminated by bacteria over time.
  • Some ingredients, like vitamin C or salicylic acid, will break down and get less effective over time.
  • Others, like retinols or glycolic acid, can actually intensify as they get older—risking irritation or other reactions.
  • Products like sunscreens that may get exposed to temperature extremes are at risk for becoming ineffective, exposing you to sun damage when you think you’ve protected yourself.


So when you’re arguing with yourself over whether you should “just use up” that older product that still seems OK, remember that it might not even be doing anything for your skin anymore.


How long do skin care products really last?

For most skin care, the rule of thumb is that once opened, it’ll be good for 6-12 months. Obviously, if a product has changed in terms of texture, smell, or color and seems noticeably “off”, it’s better to err on the side of throwing it out even if it hasn’t been 6 months.


We’ve got a few more tips for how to tell if you should toss:

Example of a Period After Opening (PAO) Mark (Source: Wikipedia) Example of a "PAO" Mark (Source: Wikipedia)
  • For products made in the US, unless any of the ingredients are considered over-the-counter drugs by the FDA, they’re not required to have an expiration date. Check the packaging, but if there’s no date and you think you’ve had it a year or more, you’re better off discarding it.
  • Many skin care products have a “PAO” mark (Period After Opening) that looks like a pot with a number and an M, like “12M”. That means how many months after first opening the product it should be safe for use.
  • Exposed products (i.e. not in a closed pump), liquids, and anything with active ingredients are likely to have a shorter shelf life.
  • If it’s been exposed to extreme temperatures, like sunscreen that’s stayed in a car during hot weather, it should be replaced sooner than later.
  • Keep it simple: If you’re checking your products twice a year, use a Sharpie to mark the bottom of any product you keep. If a product has two marks when you check it, chuck it.
  • Sealed products that have never been opened can probably still be used if they’ve been stored at room temperature out of direct sunlight. Of course, if you haven’t opened something after a year…are you really ever going to use it?



How to prolong your products’ shelf life

If you’re investing in top-quality skin care, you want to make it last as long as possible! Keep your products in tip-top shape with a few simple tips.

  • Store everything at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, and preferably in a dry spot. Yes, Instagram-worthy arrangements on windowsills or beside sinks look great—but take the shot and then move the products to a more practical spot.
  • If your product has a pump or tip, don’t touch the opening with your finger or allow it to touch other surfaces. If you need to clean it, use a clean tissue or antibacterial wipe that’s safe for skin.
  • If it uses a dropper, let the drops fall onto your fingers or applicator—don’t touch the dropper to anything and then put it back into the bottle. If it falls, clean it with an alcohol wipe or soap and water and let it dry before putting it back in.
  • Keep your products capped and closed securely between uses.
  • If the product is exposed in a jar or pot, either use a clean cotton swab or disposable/washable cosmetic spatula to scoop out what you need, or at least wash your hands with soap before you dip in.
  • Consider travel sizes, samples, and one-use packages for traveling, especially by plane where recycled air can carry lots of germs.
  • Stay with a few core products rather than keeping a bunch of products you only use now and then. Skin care is usually most effective when used consistently and long-term, so those one-shot spa nights are probably doing more for your mind than your skin. You’ll waste less money on products and use things up before they lose their power.


Why do we do this to ourselves?

It happens to all of us—we start out with the best intentions, maybe get caught up in the buzz of a new trend, or we’ve got a stubborn skin concern that leaves behind a trail of solutions that weren’t. On top of that, we’re wired to resist losing out, so once we’ve spent that money we keep telling ourselves that we should stick it out and use it up.

But to maintain truly healthy skin, we need not just high-quality products but ones that are still fresh and that we’re committed to using. Make your purge a pampering by following it up with a shopping trip for replacement or upgraded products, an aesthetician consult to refresh your regimen, or a relaxing spa night in to enjoy the skin care you keep. You might even start to look forward to spring cleaning!

Time to replace your favorites, or build a better regimen? Sign up for a free account, or log in to your existing one, and you’ll see our exclusive members-only pricing on top-rated skin care bestsellers from SkinCeuticals, SkinMedica, and Obagi!

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