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When Should I Throw Away Skin Care Products?

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How much attention do you pay to use by, sell by and best before dates on foods and perishable items? Do you know the difference between all three? It’s a tricky one, granted.*

Some of us might ignore them all completely (not always advised) and eat what we like, when we like. Others might scrape off a bit of mould or chop off a soggy bit. A few of us chuck away anything that’s been in the fridge longer than a day (won’t somebody think of the food waste!). 

Either way, what’s probably true, is that not many of us think about use by dates on our makeup and skin care products. Which is a shame, because they exist, and they’re important. 

At Sönd, we’re a skin care brand that cares about you and your skin. And we love to separate fact from fiction (and fiction from the downright ridiculous.£900 moisturiser, anyone?). So here’s the truth on when you should throw away certain skin care products…

Use by dates on skin care?Really?

In days gone by, when perhaps our grandmas were using their Ponds Cold Cream and precious little else aside from water in their skin care regime, not much thought was given to when skin care products might expire. After all, if we were only using one or two products, then they’re likely to have run out before anything untoward happened to them anyway. 

Fast forward a few decades and we saw the introduction of a strange little symbol on our makeup and skin care products. In 2005, it became European law that such products needed to feature what’s called thePeriod After Opening, or PAO, date

The PAO is symbolised by an open jar of cream (or any other product) with a number and the letter M, underneath or next to it. The number relates to how many months after opening a product it should be kept before throwing it out. 

For example, the tube of hand cream I have on my desk next to me as I type this article, has the little open pot symbol and ‘12M’ next to it. This means that I should throw it away after 12 months has passed since I first started using it. Most products have a PAO date of 6, 12, 18 or 24 months. (Thankfully, I’m a hand cream addict and it’ll no doubt all be gone after a couple of months.) 

Why do skin care products and PAO dates?

But why? Why do I need to throw it away after a year? (At this point, it’s important to remember that this means 12 months afteropening, not after buying. When we buy skin care products, they normally have a small foil seal that we need to remove before we use it. It’s from this date that the clock starts ticking.)

When makeup and skin care products are opened (as in, the foil seal is removed), they immediately become exposed to the air. This means that they’re also exposed to the natural bacteria and mould spores that are present in the air. 

Bacteria and moulds can also enter our skin care products during normal use too. When we touch them or apply them directly to our skin, or we use unclean makeup brushes and applicators, we cantransfer dirt and bugs. These bugs can then cause spoilage and subsequently be bad for our skin. 

Most product formulations contain preservatives (natural or otherwise) and these help to preserve the integrity of the product and stop it from spoiling due to the presence of bacteria and moulds. 

But these preservatives will only work to a certain lifespan. And that’s generally what’s depicted on the PAO date. It means that the preservatives in the product will become ineffective at killing bacteria and moulds that enter the products after this time. 

Active ingredients and their lifespan are also taken into account when a manufacturer is developing a product and deciding on its PAO date. Someproducts can become ineffectiveafter a certain period of time, and could therefore be useless on your skin and a total waste of time. 

What are the signs that a product is out of date? 

There are a few visible signs that your makeup or skin care product is no longer effective or is spoiling and past its best. These include:

  • Visible mould growth (throw away immediately!) 
  • Clumping
  • Splitting
  • Drying out 
  • Other changes in texture 
  • An odd smell
  • Loss of colour
  • Change of colour 
  • Unusual stinging or tingling when you apply it that you’ve never noticed before 

Should you use a product that’s past its PAO, then at best, it may be achieving a sum total of zero benefits for your skin. At worst, you could end up withspots and acne breakouts, irritation and swelling. Which is especially bad for already non conforming skin. 

What are some common use by dates on makeup and skin care products? 

Each product will have its own PAO or use by date. But as a general rule, in terms of makeup, liquid foundations will last between six months and a year whilst anything powder based will last between two and three years. Liquid and gel eyeliners and mascara will be less, at around six months. 

Skin care products are similar, with facial cleansers, exfoliants and toners generally having a 12 month PAO. Moisturisers tend to be less, at six months to a year. Any samples in small packets are only ever designed for one use, that is, use them up in one go. 

As for how you remember? We love a Sharpie pen on hand to note the month and year that a product was opened. You probably don’t need to be specific on day, as long as you note the month. Then (often painfully), throw away anything you haven’t used by the PAO. 

Because the consequences - spots, irritation or no benefit - could be a whole lot more painful. 

About those use by dates on foods… 

*For the record, there’s quite a significant difference betweenuse by dates, sell by dates and best before dates

A use by date signifies the date by which a food or drink needs to be consumed by. They’re usually used on highly perishable items such as meat, fish and dairy products. These guys need to be listened to, as eating meat or drinking milk past its use by date could signal big trouble for you.

Best before dates on the other hand, are just a guide that lets you know when a food is at its freshest. They’re mainly used on fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables and dried and tinned foods. 

Consuming these types of foods past their best before date is generally considered ok, as long as they pass the visual and sniff tests. If they look mouldy or slimy or they have an off smell, avoid them. But if a cabbage is a bit baggy or a carrot has a dodgy end you can cut off, they’re good to go. 

Sell by dates are pretty useless to us as consumers and as such, their use is dying out. They’re meant for use by shop and supermarket staff to know when to remove them from the shelves for sale. 

See? We’re a wealth of information here at Sönd, and not just on skin and skin care products! We’ll see you next week for more fascinating and useful information… 


Hannah de Gruchy BSc(Hons)

About Author

Hannah de Gruchy is a freelancer writer who specialises in health and wellness. She has a keen interest in the biology of skin and loves using her words to help separate the real science of skincare from the pseudoscience of some skincare brands. Hannah has a degree in Human Biology and many years’ experience working in laboratories around London. Using this experience, Hannah enjoys turning complex science into interesting, engaging and easy to digest pieces to read. In her spare time, Hannah runs, practices yoga and loves cooking plant based foods.

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