You Probably Need to Replace This One Medicine Cabinet Staple ASAP

published May 14, 2021
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Cleaning out your bathroom cabinets can be quite the undertaking, especially if you tend to accumulate skincare and makeup products faster than you can use up your old stash. (Guilty!) If you’ve got the itch to do some spring cleaning, you can easily tackle the clutter and thin out your product stash with a little guidance from experts. 

One of the easiest ways to figure out what to toss from your medicine cabinet is by going through what has likely expired. Yep, like produce, personal care products can and will go bad. As much as you love that lipstick or hair gel, it can’t last forever! How long should you really hang on to your bathroom essentials, and when is it time to toss ‘em and trade up? 

I chatted with beauty experts for their best tips on how long to hold on to serums, sunscreens, lipsticks, and more. Many of them stressed the importance of knowing the symbols that lurk somewhere on reputable product packaging, as well as considering where the product will end up on your face or body. 

“For brands that do indicate a shelf life on a cosmetic or skincare product, you’ll find a symbol printed on the packaging itself,” advises celebrity esthetician Renee Rouleau. “The “period after opening” symbol tells you how long a product will stay good after it’s been opened. It looks like a little open jar with a number followed either by the word ‘months’ or letter ‘M’ on it,” she says. “For example, 18M would mean the product is good for a year and a half once it’s been opened.” The “best before end of” symbol is shaped like an hourglass and includes a date. “This symbol indicates the date by which a product should be used, just like expiration dates on our food.”

With that in mind, it’s easy to discern the general rule for throwing stuff out. But there are other ways to check if something has gone “off” or if it’s no longer as effective as it once was. Here’s what to know about your go-to medicine cabinet picks.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Replace mascara after three months of use.

First things first, it’s probably past time for you to replace your mascara tube. The general rule of thumb is that anything that touches your eyes, especially mascara, should be replaced every three months. If you’re devoted to long, fluttery lashes, set a reminder in your phone when you crack open a new tube so you don’t forget to toss it after the recommended time. Your eyeshadow palettes can last longer than this — just make sure you’re washing your brushes regularly!

Always check the expiration date on sunscreen.

While you should be going through a tube of sunscreen relatively quickly, there will usually be an expiration date somewhere on the bottle. It’s important to pay attention to it, too — this isn’t a suggested timeframe! 

“Sunscreens, like all over-the-counter drugs, are labeled with an expiration date. That’s the date until which the company ensures that the product will be stable, effective, and free of contamination,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Associate Professor of Dermatology and Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “If you cannot find the expiration date on the bottle, the general rule is that the sunscreen will last for three years past its production date.” 

It also pays to check out the formula itself, so squeeze or spray a bit and check out the smell and texture. “No matter what is labeled on the bottle, if the sunscreen doesn’t look, feel, or smell the way it did when you bought it, you should toss it,” he says. And if you’re still working through the same sunscreen that you bought last summer, this is a good reminder to apply more.

Replace skincare products six to 12 months after opening, especially if you dip your finger into them.

“Prior to opening, most skincare products tend to have a two-year shelf life with a use-by date on the package,” shares Catherine LLeras, the spa general manager and an advance practice esthetician at Haus Salon in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “After opening, most skincare products have a six- to 12-month shelf life, which is indicated on the package with an open can symbol.’”

If you’re not sure when you bought that serum or cream, both Rouleau and LLeras agree that you should pay attention to texture, smell, color, and the look of the product for guidance. Rouleau advises people watch out for color changes, especially in products with vitamin C as a key ingredient, while LLeras says smell is a key indicator, especially if the product smells rancid or just less pleasantly aromatic than when you bought it. “For me, this shows it’s becoming an ineffective product, even if it isn’t technically ‘bad’ yet,” they say.

It’s also worth double-checking the formula itself, though this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. “Some products will begin to separate or change color when they’re no longer effective. Again, this isn’t a blanket statement for every product — some require a little shake to blend the solution before using and will indicate so on the packaging,” says LLeras. Texture is important too. “Has your lotion turned watery or your favorite creme hardened or dried up?” they ask. “When the viscosity of the product has completely changed, it’s an indicator that it is no longer the original product blend that you began with.”

To help extend shelf life of your fave serums and masks, be sure to treat the products with care, and LLeras recommends storing your skincare in a cool, dark place like a drawer or a cabinet. “Always close product lids completely to avoid oxidation and/or bacteria getting into your products,” they say. “Additionally, make sure to keep your products free of bacteria by using clean hands whenever using it — the more you have to dip into your product to use it, the more opportunities you have to introduce bacteria into it.” Products you dip into will likely go rancid more quickly than ones in squeeze tubes.

Credit: Anik Polo

Lip makeup should last about two years after first use.

Those lipsticks you haven’t been using due to COVID mask regulations? They’ll last about two years if you store them in a cool, dry place. You can extend their lives by using a dedicated brush to apply them to your lips, but pay special attention to products with built-in applicators or ones that you apply directly to your mouth. And if you used a certain lipstick just before you came down with a cold, it might be worth tossing the tube to stay safe.

Pay attention to the rest of your makeup, and note the dates.

In general, pros recommend keeping an eye on texture and scent when you’re going through your makeup. “To me, the easiest way to tell if a product is past its prime is if the color, odor, taste (if it’s a lip product), or texture changes,” says makeup artist and educator Anne Skubis. “Products that contain oil or waxes will change smell, just like a cooking oil does. Texture changes in liquids can look like separation that does not remedy itself with shaking the product.” Nail polish can hang out for a while, but if it starts to separate, toss it. 

What about things like powders and pencils, which may not have straightforward textures or scents to judge from? Skubis recommends keeping an eye on how they apply. “For pencils and liners, it can look like not gliding on as smoothly and leaving a clumpy uneven finish,” she says. “For powders, sometimes repetitive use of brushes without washing them regularly can make them appear darker. The oils and product from a brush or finger mixes at the surface and make the powder hard to dispense.”

However, there’s a quick fix to possibly save your favorite blush. “Sometimes just taking a disposable mascara wand and agitating the surface to break up and remove that layer will fix it.” If that doesn’t work, it’s time to toss it. 

Haircare packages feature expiration dates, too.

Sure, you use up a bottle of shampoo in a timely fashion, but what about things like gels, curl creams, and more? Check out the expiration date on the back of the bottle for insight, as these guidelines vary. Again, pay attention to smells or texture changes, as well as product performance. If your curl cream isn’t giving you the waves or ringlets it used to, it may be time to toss.

Styling tools can last forever with proper care.

You don’t need to toss your hairbrush after a certain time; if you regularly remove the hair and give it a good cleaning every so often, it should last for years. Combs just need a bath in hot soapy water and a good scrubbing.

And as long as you store your perfume properly, it can last for literal decades.

To prevent a perfume going off or changing in smell, take your fragrances out of the bathroom! “The bathroom is too humid and warm,” says Jane Daly, a beauty writer and the creator of Eau de Jane perfume. If you store your fragrances properly, they can last for years — Daly has fragrances from the ‘60s that still smell great! “Light and heat damage the perfume,” she says. “Light can degrade the scent and make it break down. Heat has a similar effect.” Daly stores her fragrances in a closed cabinet in her bedroom to protect them from light. “I think of having them locked away as less to dust or clean.”