A tube of mascara can last you for several years with limited use, but the golden rule is to replace it every three months. This may seem like you're throwing away perfectly good makeup, but it's for good reason: These products can harbor bacteria, putting you at risk for infection or irritation. So, does this strict three-month rule apply to skin care, too? Not exactly.

The expiration dates on products like moisturizers and serums work a bit differently—but you should still know the basics of when to throw out skin care products. This depends on a few factors, like the type of product, whether it's been opened, and the manufacturer's estimated expiration date. Read on for more.

Knowing When to Throw Out Skin Care Products

There's no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to throwing old skin care products in the trash. But, there are a few things you can consider when making the decision to keep it or toss it.

Use the Expiration Date as a Guide

There are no official expiration guidelines for products like serums, moisturizers, and sunscreens because there are many influential factors, and it's not required by law. Consider the expiration date on your product as a rule of thumb. Generally, opened skin care products last for a few months to a year, whereas unopened skin care products can last for two to three years. This mainly applies to serums and creams.

Sunscreen, on the other hand, is a bit more regulated because the FDA considers it to be a drug, not a cosmetic. The FDA requires that sunscreens remain at their original strength for at least three years, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you tend to carry over your unused sunscreen from one summer to the next, this may be music to your ears. Just keep in mind that you don't have to wait for the following summer to lather on the sunscreen. In fact, you should wear sunscreen in the winter, too.

If there's no expiration date—or you're wondering, "Can I use unopened expired skin care products?"—it's up to you to use your best judgment. Look for changes in the product's appearance and smell. If the color and texture have changed significantly and it's separated, thicker or thinner than usual, or smells funky, it's time to throw it away and buy a new one.

Consider the Shelf Life

Though expiration dates aren't always clearly labeled on serums, toners, and moisturizers, you may see a note on the product's shelf life. Shelf life refers to the length of time the product can sit on the shelf—whether it's at a retail store or in your own home—while still being safe for use.

The ingredients heavily influence a product's shelf life, too. Products that use "all-natural" ingredients and little-to-no preservatives tend to have a shorter shelf life and are at increased risk of going bad. Then, you have to consider how a product is stored and whether it's opened or still sealed. Products that are exposed to sunlight and heat, especially if the packaging is translucent, degrade at a quicker rate.

How to Make Your Products Last

To extend the lifespan of your skin care products, store them in a cool, dark place and open them only when you're ready to use them. Once opened, you can follow the period-after-opening (PAO) symbol. The PAO symbol looks like an opened jar and has a number and letter on it, like 12M. It can be found on the bottom of most skin care products and indicates that the product is good for 12 months after opening.

Staying ahead of the curve is a good way to avoid throwing out expired skin care products you haven't had the chance to use up. To keep your products in tip-top shape, implement these practices per the FDA:

  • Don't share products with others, especially those applied to the eye area or with your fingers, as this leaves it open for contamination.

  • Store your products properly away from direct sunlight and heat sources.

  • Keep the product applicators and containers clean to prevent bacteria from moving in.

  • Avoid products that are re-sold or offered for sale at flea markets. They may be much older than you think and therefore close to expiration or even already expired.

While you generally have a year to use up opened skin care products, remember that sunscreen tends to last longer. Further, products like the EltaMD UV Stick Broad-Spectrum SPF 50+ may be even more sustainable than cream sunscreens. All good things must come to an end, and that includes your skin care products. Keep these tips in mind and try to use up your serums and moisturizers in a timely manner. And when your favorite product expires, consider it an opportunity to treat yourself to something new; you and your skin are worth it.

Author

  • Lacey is a Southern California-based freelance writer who combines her passions—fitness, health, and a vegan lifestyle—with her work to help readers feel and be their best. Her work has been featured in Healthline, Livestrong, Verywell Fit, Eat This Not That, KinderBeauty, and more.