Top Ten

How to Know If Your Beauty Products Have Gone Bad

vanity table with products 2

Take a look around your fridge and within a few seconds, you could probably tell at first glance what should be thrown out. Your veggies and spices start to wilt and dry up, while prepared meals start to form oil at the top of the plastic containers. And that milk? One whiff and you know it’s not okay to drink. But what about when you look in your makeup bag, your shower or medicine cabinet? It’s not always clear if your foundation or shampoo is okay to use, or if it’s time to toss it out and replace the goods. Using expired products is not only a little gross, but it can also be troublesome for your skin.

“The main problem with old products is that they can decompose. The chemicals can separate and cause problems with the skin. I have seen burns and irritation from old products. They can also harbor bacteria and cause a skin infection or even worse: they can have viruses and cause a herpes outbreak,” explains Dr. Debra Jailman, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Yikes, right? As Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Beverly Hills, Calif. explains, generally speaking, you should look for three things when considering how healthy your product is: “If the product looks different than when you first opened it, throw it out. Or if there is any change in texture, color, smell or if the product begins to separate, throw it out. Or if you used the tool or product over an infected area and can’t sanitize it, probably throw it out, too.”

The PAO symbol—or, period-after-opening symbol—is another thing to look out for. It looks like a small jar of body butter with a number and the letter “M” written inside or underneath it. The number represents a product’s expiration date once opened for the first time. For example: If you open a product labeled “6M,” you have 6 months to use it before it’s considered expired.

Want to know specifically how long your coveted items last? Here, dermatologists tell all.

  1. 1. Sunscreen

    Though you don’t need us to remind you that wearing sunscreen is important every single day (and not only in the hottest heat wave of summertime), most people won’t go through a big bottle of sunscreen quickly. Especially if you’re only wearing a thin layer each time you apply, you might hold onto your SPF for many seasons. Dr. Shainhouse advises that if you open a bottle, be careful and pay attention.
    Shelf life: Around two years, depending on the quality of care. “Sunscreens tend to have a long shelf life, and should be effective for about two years after opening,” Dr. Shainhouse says. “However, exposure to heat, when bottles are left in the sun, can cause the active sunscreen agent and vehicle ingredients to break down faster, and can also change the consistency of the lotion.”
    How to tell if it’s bad: Try to think of your bottle of sunscreen in the same context you might consider that carton of milk in the fridge. When it starts to change shade or smell funky—step away. “If you notice that it has changed from white to yellow, smells off or that the cream is separating, toss it out,” Dr. Shainhouse advises.

  2. 2. Shampoo

    Even if you opt for a more luxe brand of shampoo, most companies offer oversized bottles that over time are more cost-effective than spending money on a new bottle of hair wash every month. (And if you have longer hair, maybe even sooner than that.) But if you’re worried about its performance weakening over time, rest easy. Unlike most beauty products, shampoo lasts a long time.
    Shelf life: You can keep these for a while; just make sure they’re tightly sealed and kept in a clean shower. “Closed shampoo bottles will last for many years on the shelf. Open ones can last for a couple of years, too, so long as they are closed tightly and don’t get diluted down with shower water, or contaminated with mildew,” Dr. Shainhouse notes. She also adds that a gel shampoo will last much longer than a creamy one.
    How to tell if it’s bad: Since you wash your hair each day (or every other day), you’re going to be used to the scent and texture. If you notice that either of those is off, Dr. Shainhouse says to throw it out and buy a new one.

  3. 3. Soaps and Cleansers

    If you’ve made the swap to bar soap from your shower gel, you’ll know that a bar of soap will last for quite a long time. But is it okay to use for months upon months? Whichever way you choose to cleanse your body, you have full permission to take your time.
    Shelf life: If you’re given a set of five soaps or body gels for your birthday, it’s very likely that it will take you a while to get through them. “Don’t open them,” Dr. Shainhouse says, because they can last for years if they’re still in their packaging. Once you’ve broken the seal, you still have a year or so, she says. The only exception is creamy washes, as Dr. Shainhouse notes, they “begin to turn off-color or smell rancid more quickly, due to the oils in them.”
    How to tell if it’s bad: Again, utilize your five senses to make a judgment call. “If the color, smell or texture changes or looks wrong, or if the product separates, splurge for a new bottle,” she explains.

  4. 4. Moisturizers

    By now, it’s part of your daily routine to wake up, wash your face, turn on the coffee pot and apply your moisturizer. Most people become pretty loyal to their trusted moisturizer and you should be equally as dedicated to making sure your old faithful is still going strong.
    Shelf life: Dr. Shainhouse says that a good moisturizer will last up to a year and that as long as it looks and feels as it did when you first popped open the bottle, you’re good to go.
    How to tell if it’s bad: Over time and depending on the conditions in which you keep your moisturizer, you’ll start to notice a difference in color and even smell. If this happens, say goodbye to that bottle.

  5. 5. Serums

    These mighty but powerful drops on your face make a big difference in the texture, complexion and youth of your cells. While recommended by most dermatologists, especially as we age, serums don’t last as long as we would like them to, especially if they’re opened. It’s not that they necessarily go bad, it’s that they lose the good stuff that makes us shell out the extra cash for them from the get-go.

    Shelf life: About a year, according to Dr. Shainhouse. “While the active ingredients might lose some of their stability, like vitamin C, or potency over time, if the product looks unaffected, it is not harmful to use for at least a year,” she says.

    How to tell if it’s bad: Because of the bottles most serums are packaged in, you don’t run as many risks as you do with other skin care items. “Serums are usually dispensed in an opaque squeeze tube or pump bottle, so there is no concern for contamination from dirty fingers or product degradation due to UV exposure,” she says. But as with anything, if something feels or smells off, it probably is.

  6. 6. Foundation

    It’s as if makeup companies are in cahoots with one another, getting you completely dependent on one shade of foundation and then discontinuing it, right when you need a refill. “Don’t save the end of the bottle of the ‘best color’ for years, because the product will most definitely begin to break down and clump or separate over time,” Dr. Shainhouse says. So how long can you keep it?
    Shelf life: Dr. Shainhouse says you have about a year to hold onto your prized liquid foundation before it’s time to break up with it. However, if you have a sponge-style foundation or a cream-based one that requires you to re-dip your fingers or sponge blenders into it, cut yourself off at six months. Why? “Because they are more easily contaminated with acne, causing bacteria or yeast,” she explains.
    How to tell if it’s bad: “If you notice a change in smell, color or consistency, throw it out,” she says. You might also notice oil beginning to form and it not mixing or absorbing into your skin, which is an indicator that it’s no longer good to use.

  7. 7. Blush

    Though not everyone is pro-blush (you might be more in the bronze or highlighter camp), this beauty product tends to last a while, making you look brighter and sometimes, even younger.
    Shelf life: Dr. Shainhouse says that powder blushes will last a few years if they aren’t broken, while a gel-stick or a cream blush might dry out faster with consistent use. No matter what type you use, make sure you clean your brushes frequently to prevent breakouts.
    How to know if it’s bad: If your gel or cream blush gets super sticky, completely dry or if it changes its texture, starts to smell or all of the above, Dr. Shainhouse says to get rid of it ASAP.

  8. 8. Eye Shadow

    Most women have various eyeshadow palettes for different occasions: date night, work, brunch with the gals, etc. Luckily, most shadows will stand by your side loyally through all of your adventures.
    Shelf life: Here, Dr. Shainhouse says it’s important to keep your eye brushes clean so your favorite shades can last for years.
    How to know if it’s bad: Apart from general aging over time, like with any product, Dr. Shainhouse explains that the way you use your products can determine its lifetime value. “Oils on the eyelids can transfer to the powder palette if you ‘double dip,’ which can potentially affect the color of the product,” she says. That’s when you’ll want to toss it out.

  9. 9. Mascara

    Even if you don’t wear any other makeup, you probably still rely on mascara to make your eyes look brighter. However, this popular product doesn’t last as long as many of its cosmetic friends.
    Shelf life: If you use it every single day (or most days), your mascara should only last three to six months, Dr. Shainhouse says.
    How to know when it’s bad: There are some dangers with mascara, simply because of how it’s applied. “This is a product that screams ‘double dipping’ and it is applied to an ‘open area’ that comes in contact with body fluids, so it is prone to breeding bacteria and yeast in the tube,” Dr. Shainhouse explains. “If the product starts to smell off, becomes thick and clumpy or changes color, throw it out. If you used it while you had a cold or pink eye, throw it out,” she concludes.

  10. 10. Lipstick and Lip Pencils

    Some ladies don’t feel like their best self until they have some color on their pucker, and if that’s you, you probably have a signature shade. While it probably won’t last you a full year, lipstick can make it up to 365 days, if kept properly.
    Shelf life: “If you use the same stick daily, get a new one every six to 12 months,” Dr. Shainhouse says.
    How to know if it’s bad: When you can’t apply it anymore because it’s dried out, looks cracked or the color has changed, it’s time to toss it out. Dr. Shainhouse says this happens with exposure to skin oils, bacteria and oxygen.

  11. 11. Nail Polish

    Raise your hand if you still have a nail polish you bought when you were in high school that you just can’t get rid of. (Guilty.) Though you might have sentimental attachment to one of your first beauty products, Dr. Shainhouse says it’s time to let it go.
    Shelf life: “Nail polishes tend to get thick, dry and sticky after a year or so,” she says. Though she adds that you can try to thin them out by adding acetone. But if they start going bitter, let them go.
    How to know if it’s bad: In addition to seeing the color separate from the ingredients or change completely, it’s not a bad idea to get rid of nail polish if for no other reason than sanitary concerns. “The alcohol and chemicals in nail polish do not make it a great breeding ground for bacteria and fungus, so even if they are safe to use, if they get thick, they just look messy. However, don’t share polish with someone who has toenail fungus, because it is very difficult to treat, if you do contract it,” Dr. Shainhouse says.

Writer and Editor

Lindsay Tigar

Lindsay Tigar is a travel and lifestyle journalist who contributes to a myriad of publications—from Travel + Leisure and Vogue to Glamour and countless others. She's a digital nomad who works from every corner of the globe, scoping out the best coffee, collecting artisan crafts and testing every beauty product she can find. You can find a collection of her work at