The shelf life is the period during which the manufacturer has determined a cosmetic or personal care product to be best suited for use.
There are no regulations or requirements under current U.S. law that require manufacturers to print specific expiration dates on the labels of cosmetics and personal care products. They are, however, required to determine shelf life as part of their responsibility to substantiate safety.
Expiration dates are required for most over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. For those OTC drugs without dosage limitations (e.g., antiperspirants, antidandruff shampoos, toothpaste, sunscreens, etc.), however, regulations (21 CFR 211.137) do not require an expiration date, provided these products have demonstrated at least 3 years of stability.
In Europe, cosmetics products with a lifespan longer than 30 months must show a “period after opening” (PAO) time. PAO is the time, recorded in months, during which the product will remain in good condition after the consumer has used it for the first time. A symbol of an open cream jar is usually used instead of words with the PAO alongside or inside the symbol. Although this symbol can be found on some U.S. cosmetics and personal care products, it is not required.
Any cosmetic or personal care product in Europe that has a lifespan of fewer than 30 months must also show a “best before the end of” date. This can be shown using the “egg timer” symbol followed by the date, or the words (abbreviated to “BBE or “Exp”), followed by the date. You will find very few products labeled with BBEdates because the majority 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 it has not been properly stored. Products that have been improperly stored (e.g., exposed to high temperatures or sunlight, or opened and examined by consumers prior to final sale) may deteriorate substantially before the shelf life or 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. Manufacturers usually recommend discarding mascara three to six months after purchase. When mascara becomes dry, it should be discarded. Do not add water or, even worse, saliva to moisten it, as you may be introducing 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 instructions carefully and take note of any warnings for use
- Tightly close lids on products when not in use
- Use products within their intended lifespan (as indicated by the PAO 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 applicator
- Wash applicators thoroughly with soap, detergent or mild shampoo, and allow to dry completely before use
- Apply with new, unused applicator when testing at a store
- Avoid sharing cosmetics and personal care products with anyone else
- When in doubt, throw it out!
Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (UK): Understanding your label
Cosmetics Europe: Understanding The Label