Not that I'm pointing fingers. Even I keep beauty products longer than I should — especially if they're expensive. But if you've ever seen those close-up images of the bacteria that feast on your lipstick, blush, eyeliner and everything else in your makeup bag when they are long past their prime, you'll change your tune. Use those outdated products and those very same bacteria just might infect you. Time to roll up your sleeves, march into your bathroom — garbage bag in hand — and start throwing away your old and possibly infested cosmetics and skin-care products.
Unlike the European Union's Cosmetics Directive, which requires expiration dates on cosmetic products whose "minimum durability" is less than 30 months, there are no regulations under U.S. law to require cosmetic companies to print expiration dates on products. But some American cosmetic companies are voluntarily using PAO (Period After Opening) symbols that specify how long the product is safe to use after opening.
Look for a tiny open-jar symbol on your cosmetic product with an "M" (for month) stamped on it preceded by a number such as 3, 6 or 12. If you see the PAO symbol with 12M stamped on it, for example, the company is telling you that the product should be good to use for 12 months after opening. To help jog your memory, put little stickers on your cosmetic and skin-care items and write the date of opening on the sticker. You can purchase small stickers at an office supply store, or from Beauty Alert! (beautyalert.biz) or Timestrip (timestrip.com), which sell stickers especially made to keep track of the day you first use beauty products. Some cosmetics and sunscreens do have an expiration date printed on them. But note that sunscreen is usually only fully effective for six months to a year.
The problem with PAO guidelines (and even expiration dates) is that though they're a good start, they don't account for how you store and use your cosmetics — both of which can affect shelf life. The Food & Drug Administration warns consumers that cosmetic expiration dates are simply "rules of thumb," and that a product's safety may "expire long before the expiration date if the product has not been properly stored."
Dr. Zein Obagi, a Beverly Hills dermatologist who's been in practice for more than 30 years and created Obagi skin-care products, warns against supersizing. "Women want to buy something that they can use forever so that they don't have to buy it again," Obagi says. "Unfortunately, that doesn't happen. That's why they put cosmetic products in small containers because they should be used in a short period of time." So sidestep the industrial-sized face cream — better instead to buy the small size more often.
Obagi says that if you keep any product too long or expose it to air or direct sunlight it will degrade. "Chemical changes occur in the formula, and there's going to be evaporation and a high concentration of chemicals especially irritating for sensitive skin and in sensitive areas like around the eyes," he says. "Vitamin C, retinol, hydroquinone, glycolic acid — all ingredients are vulnerable."
Obagi says that vitamin C becomes unstable and loses efficacy after a few weeks.
"Aside from a dry mineral powder, everything is susceptible to being highly contaminated," he says, adding that one solution is airtight packaging. Air can cause contamination, as can dipping your fingers into containers.
If you keep cosmetics in warm, humid or hot areas — for instance, your bathroom, like just about everyone does — you're risking problems. "You may open the product for just one minute and that humidity will be a fertile ground to allow mold, bacteria, fungus and streptococcus to grow," Obagi says. "You find these contaminants in old makeup and skin-care products." Using products like these makes you vulnerable to infections, acne, pustules and scarring. "Even if a product is kept away from sun and heat I wouldn't use it after two years even if it was sealed," Obagi says.
And don't forget your loofah, sponges and washcloths as you're cleaning out your beauty products. Edward J. Bottone, professor emeritus of medicine/infectious diseases at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, published an article about infected loofahs in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology. "Loofahs are especially vulnerable to bacterial growth," Bottone says. "These natural sponges have many nooks and crannies that, especially when moist, invite bacteria."
Bacteria feed off carbohydrates and proteins in the loofah — including dead skin. "I once had a woman come to me who had a horrible rash and infection and couldn't figure out what it was from," Bottone says. "I had her bring in her loofah and other wash items. Her loofah was green with mold and bacteria. If you have little cuts in your skin and wash with an infected loofah you can be infected."
Any moist loofah, washcloth or even a synthetic sponge can cause rashes such as folliculitis, an infection of the hair follicles that often looks like clusters of small, red bumps. Bottone suggests cleaning loofahs, sponges and washcloths in a 1% bleach solution weekly. Or you can put your washcloth and sponges (as long as they don't contain metal) in the microwave for three to five minutes to disinfect. (The microwave trick doesn't work with a loofah, however, since the microwave will make it harden.) Wring washcloths and sponges out thoroughly and air-dry in a well-ventilated area. Throw away loofahs every three weeks and and sponges every six to eight weeks.