Shelf Life and Expiration Dates

What Is It?

The shelf life, or expiration date, of a cosmetic or personal care product is the period during which the manufacturer has determined a product to be best suited for use. 

There are no regulations or requirements under current U.S. laws that require cosmetic manufacturers to print expiration dates on the labels of cosmetic products.  However, manufacturers have the responsibility to determine shelf life for products as part of their responsibility to substantiate product safety.

Expiration dates are required for over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.  However for OTC drugs without dosage limitations (e.g., antiperspirants, antidandruff shampoos, toothpastes, sunscreens, etc.), OTC drug regulations (21 CFR 211.137) do not require an expiration date provided that these products have demonstrated at least 3 years of stability.

In Europe, cosmetic products with a lifespan longer than 30 months must show a "period after opening" (POA) time. That is, the time in months when the product will remain in good condition after the consumer has used the product for the first time. A symbol of an open cream jar is usually used instead of words and the time in months can be inside the symbol or alongside it.  Although this symbol is frequently present on some U.S. cosmetics products, it is not required.

In Europe, any cosmetic product that has a lifespan of less than 30 months must show a "Best before the end of" date. This can be shown using the "egg timer" symbol followed by the date, or the words, which can be abbreviated to BBE or Exp, followed by the date. The fact is there are very few cosmetics that are labeled with ‘best before’ dates because the majority of products are known to last more than 30 months.

  Some products do not require any of these times to be shown because the product will not deteriorate in normal use. Examples are aerosols, which are effectively sealed; perfumes, which have high alcohol content; or single use packs.

Consumers should be aware that expiration dates are simply "rules of thumb," and that, similar to foods, a product's quality may decline before the expiration date if the product has not been properly stored. Cosmetics that have been improperly stored - for example, exposed to high temperatures or sunlight, or opened and examined by consumers prior to final sale - may deteriorate substantially before the expiration date. On the other hand, products stored under ideal conditions may be acceptable long after the expiration date has been reached.

Why does eye makeup have a shorter shelf life?

The shelf life for eye-area cosmetics is more limited than for other products because it is more susceptible to microbial infection during use by the consumer and the risk of eye infections. Manufacturers usually recommend discarding mascara three to six months after purchase. If mascara becomes dry, it should be discarded. Do not add water or, even worse, saliva to moisten it, because that may introduce bacteria into the product. If you have an eye infection, consult a physician immediately, stop using all eye-area cosmetics, and discard those you were using when the infection occurred.

Best practices for using cosmetics and personal care products
  • Read the instructions carefully and take note of any warnings for use
  • Tightly close lids on products when they are not in use
  • Use products within the lifespan indicated by the Period After Opening symbol or best before date
  • Avoid storing products in direct sunlight or near sources of heat; choose cool (not freezing) areas where possible
  • Never dilute products (e.g., mixing water in mascara)
  • Apply products with clean hands or an applicator
  • Wash applicators thoroughly with soap, detergent or a mild shampoo then allow to dry completely before use
  • Avoid sharing cosmetics and personal care products with another person
  • Apply with new, unused applicator when testing at department store or cosmetic counter
  • When in doubt, throw it out!