Learn to Read the “PAO” Symbol to Help You Declutter Your Toiletries

published Jul 29, 2020
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Let’s face it: You probably have more bathroom clutter than you’d like to admit. Whether you’re collecting expired headache medicine or old lipsticks and eyeliners, chances are you’re sitting on some seriously outdated cosmetics and toiletries. 

Luckily, we’re here to remind you that there’s a super easy way to keep your beloved bathroom supplies up-to-date and your medicine cabinet less cluttered. 

What Is a “PAO” symbol?

The PAO symbol—aka the “Period After Opening” symbol—can be found on all sorts of bathroom goods, like makeup, lotion, over the counter medicine, and toiletries. The symbol helps you identify how long a product is safe to use after its package has been opened for the first time. You’ll see it marked by an open jar symbol, usually with a time period given in months that’s represented by a number followed by the words “month(s)” or with an “M” inside or next to the jar symbol, such as “36M.” 

Credit: Azindianlany/Shutterstock

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require manufacturers to print expiration dates on cosmetic labels, the European Union requires expiration dating but only for products whose “minimum durability” is more than 30 months. So, you’re especially likely to find this helpful symbol on your European brand toiletries. 

How is it different than an expiration date?

Although both the PAO and expiration date are determined by factors including where a product is stored, how it’s handled, and its chemical makeup, there’s a very important difference between the period after opening symbol and an expiration date. The PAO symbol refers to the amount of time a product will remain stable and safe for human use after it’s originally opened—so it’s directly influenced by the first interaction you have with a product (and the risk of contamination and degradation after opening).

Conversely, a product’s expiration date or shelf life identifies the amount of time it takes a product to quit performing as promised. Generally, it’s a specific date given in months and years, that denotes when a cosmetic or toiletry might lose its potency—even if it was never opened. 

Translation: A PAO symbol will tell you how long a product stays good after you open it, while an expiration date lets you know when a product is no longer usable, no matter when (or if) you opened it. Either way, it’s a smart and effective way to edit your toiletries every season.  

The next time you open a fresh bottle of lotion or tube of mascara, write the date on the container with a permanent marker. Then when it’s time to clear out your medicine cabinet or bathroom drawers, the PAO symbol (and some quick math) will let you know if each of your products are past their useful life.