Jamie Schneider is the Associate Editor at mindbodygreen, covering beauty and health. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
Our editors have independently chosen the products listed on this page. If you purchase something mentioned in this article, we may earn a small commission.
Last updated on April 12, 2021
As much as we wish we could hold onto all our beauty buys, alas, skin care products do not last forever. But it can be difficult to toss a coveted product, especially if you don't hit pan before the precious time is up—after all, why should you toss a pricey night cream when you still have so much moisturizing goop to pile on?
Make no mistake: You do not want to be slathering on rancid skin care. But how long do skin care products actually last, and what are the signs it's time to part ways? We tapped experts for their storage tips.
What is the shelf-life of skin care & why does it matter?
Your first and best rule of thumb is already on the bottle: The brand-approved shelf life is depicted by a number followed by the letter M (aka, how many months it will last). This is going to be your expiration date, the same as you would see on food items. But that's not the only thing to look out for, as expiration dates are only a fraction of the story: Products can become inactive or spoil due to air or light exposure, so you need to be mindful of these signs, too.
According to board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of Dr. Wang Herbal Skincare, Steven Wang, M.D., shelf-life works twofold: There's rancidity, where you might see "changing color, changing temperatures, phase separations, and a changing of odor," he says, but it's important to think about shelf-life in terms of efficacy, too.
"You can even go further and think about the functional shelf life of active ingredients," adds Wang. Meaning: Even if a product doesn't look like it's gone bad, its active ingredients may lose their power overtime—and in that case, it's not doing much for your skin.
Each skin care product has an expiration date on the label, a number followed by the letter "M" (meaning the number of months). This is your absolutely must-toss date, but some products can expire earlier than that, depending on how you store them.
When should you replace each product?
To make a complicated, nuanced story short, when it comes to skin care shelf life—first, pay attention to your labels. The period-after-opening date found on the bottle is your absolute "must-toss" marker: Do not ignore this label.
Then, be sure to keep an eye out for these additional key indicators below to make sure your product is as potent as possible. Because when people aren't knowledgeable about when it's time to restock their products, the formulations can be harmful to our skin rather than helpful .
Cleansers: ~6–12 months.
For liquid or cream cleansers, you'll know you're due for a refill when the product starts to separate, meaning the oil and water components that are usually bonded together are starting to break apart: Keep an eye out for these first clues of this separation process and toss accordingly.
Another thing to be mindful of: "Liquid and cream cleansers typically have a shelf life of six months, as their moist formula puts them at risk to develop bacteria," says board-certified dermatologist Ellen Marmur, M.D., founder of MMSkincare.
Oil cleansers, on the other hand, are a little bit of a different story. "For oil cleansers in general—if it's made of pure oil—the shelf-life might perhaps be a little bit longer," Wang says. "In theory, there won't be any phase separation (the separation of oil and water) because the cleanser only contains oil. If the oil has only natural oils, when it becomes exposed to air and light, the oil can become rancid or spoiled." According to Wang, you can identify a rancid oil by its color, smell, and texture, and each oil has a different timeline (more in a moment).
Toners & essences: ~6–12 months.
Toners are water-based (yes, even purifying options!), which makes them vulnerable to bacteria—and while they'll typically include some sort of safer preservative to make it shelf-stable, they'll typically have a shorter time frame. And if you make your own formula (like, say, a DIY rosewater toner), you'll want to toss it after about a week, as these homemade concoctions don't contain any preservatives to keep it fresh.
Serums: ~6–12 months.
When it comes to serums, we know that it's best to use them when they're at their most active. Because serums penetrate deep into the skin, locking in moisture and nutrients, it's important to time these guys just right and care for them preciously. Read: You can ruin a perfectly good serum just by keeping the cap open or placing it in the sun.
The good thing is that there are usually visible markers of a serum gone bad, so you can easily identify which ones you need to toss, ASAP. For example, "Consumers should make sure that their vitamin C-based products have not shifted orange or brown because that is an indication that the product has begun to oxidize, thus no longer active," says cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson, founder of BeautyStat Cosmetics.
"Vitamin C is the most notorious one," Wang agrees. "It has the shortest shelf life because of its water-soluble antioxidants. When it's exposed to water and air, it becomes degraded." While products can be formulated to have one good year of shelf life, it's important to notice these visible signs of degradation to be absolutely sure.
In terms of the other serums (hyaluronic acid, AHA, BHA, peptide, ceramides, the list goes on…), those should all be fairly stable. The only other finicky serum to note is retinol: "Consumers should make sure that the product is packaged in an opaque and airtight package," advises Robinson. That way, the vitamin A derivative is safe from exposure to air and light, which can degrade its potency.
Oils: ~3 months to 2 years.
Oils, by nature, do not contain water. So theoretically, they should last a long while. But "here's the thing about different oils," Wang explains. "Coconut, jojoba, rosehip, grapeseed—all these oils have different concentrations of unsaturated fatty acids, and when they're exposed to oxygen and light, this exposure will break down the double bond that causes the activation and rancidity, which will change the color, smell, and feel of products."
Essentially, each oil has its own nutrient profile, which can affect how long it stays potent. Says Marmur: "Rosehip oil mixed with vitamin E can last up to two years, but if it is by itself, it will only be good for six months," she says. "Grapeseed oil is only good for three months unless it is stored in the refrigerator. Then it will be good for up to six months." Again, storage matters, as does the added ingredients inside the bottle—and that's where looking at your labels is key.
Masks: varies by type.
Masks tend to be tricky to categorize into one shelf-life umbrella, because there are so many formulations on the market (read: clay masks, enzyme masks, sheet masks, et al). Each type contains a different set of ingredients that react differently when exposed to air and water.
Masks that are already activated (think your standard cream or jelly masks that are ready to lather on) usually contain water. Water, as we know all too well by now, breeds bacteria and therefore needs certain preservatives added to the mixture.
On the flip-side, unactivated masks (think powder masks you activate with water yourself) tend to have a longer lifespan. For example, Wang mentions, "If a mask is comprised of clay and powder, that should have a really, really long shelf life because there's no exposure to water or oxygen." Plus, some powder masks allow you to activate with whatever substance you'd like, so you can get creative with the base (yogurt, Manuka honey, and jojoba oil are just a few options to try).
The bottom line? There's a lot to consider.
Let's recap: First and foremost, you should look for the expiration date on your skin care labels—that handy timestamp is there for a reason. However, there is a chance your products could go bad before that "must-toss" date—that's when you should look for visible signs of rancidity, like a change in color or smell.
As a general rule, keep in mind that water is a breeding ground for bacteria, so products that are made of mostly H2O tend to have an extra-short shelf-life (unless they're jam-packed with preservatives). On the other side of the pendulum swing, powders and clays with no water content last much, much longer.
Although it might physically pain you to dispose of a beloved product (we understand), just remind yourself that you're ultimately doing the right thing for your skin. It bears repeating: Beauty products do not last forever—any lifetime guarantee should sound send alarm bells ringing.