Life&Style’s Phoebe Hughes-Broughton takes a look at makeup use-by dates and how to know when to throw a product away

Aspiring author.
Images by pxhere

Makeup buyers generally fall into two categories: those who buy enough makeup to use daily and only repurchase products when they have run out; and those who buy virtually every new product, more for the purpose of having a ‘complete’ collection than because they need so much makeup in their daily lives. However, with the increased presence of beauty gurus both in vlog and blog form, and the popularity of images of the ‘perfect’ makeup collection where rows of lipstick stretch as far as the eye can see, and the drawers are filled with more products than the typical MAC store, more and more people are falling into this second category.

A lot of people take issue with this – for the ethical factors of how many makeup brands make their products so cheaply, to the environmental issues this level of production brings with it, and even the finance issues of how people can afford to spend so much money on more products than they could ever possibly use. But one thing very few people talk about is the health issues of owning so much makeup.

If you have owned a foundation, or perhaps a lipstick, for more than a few years then you may have seen first-hand the dilemma here: makeup does not last forever. Unlike clothing, which is usually fine to be left at the back of a wardrobe until you remember that you own it a few years later and decide to wear it again, makeup cannot be left for that long.

This is why all makeup products come with use-by dates on them. Unfortunately, unlike food, these are not always clearly visible and specific date stamps that tell you when you should just throw the product out. Instead, they are usually written as a small open-container symbol (called a PAO, or ‘Period After Opening’ symbol) with a number written inside of it. For instance, a symbol with ‘12M’ written inside means that that product should not be used more than twelve months after opening it. But with more and more people owning more and more makeup, using products up before they go bad is becoming a real challenge.

So the question is, how long can you really leave your makeup before it starts becoming a health risk? Here are a few tips on how to decide when to throw out old makeup:

  • Check the packaging. Find that little symbol that tells you how long the brand recommends you keep the product and make a note of it. Usually, for mascaras, you shouldn’t keep them any longer than 6 months; for concealer and foundation it’s around a year, and for powder products it’s usually 2 years.
  • If you can’t remember how long you’ve had the product, you can check its batch code on websites like and – these websites can also be great to find out how long products have been sitting on the shelf before you even bought them.
  • If you’re still not sure, check the colour and the smell. If a product has started to discolour, or changed scent, you’re probably best to just throw it away. Even if it’s within its use-by date, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
    When in doubt, do a patch test. Swatch a small amount of the product on your arm and leave it for 24-hours to see if you develop a reaction. If not, you’re probably safe to keep using it, but if you get any sort of rash or itchiness, just get rid.

If a product has started to discolour, or changed scent, you’re probably best to just throw it away. Even if it’s within its use-by date, it’s better to be safe than sorry

  • Cream and liquid products tend to go off faster than powders; powders are also easier to sanitise, so if you think it’s starting to go bad try scraping off the top layer and applying some rubbing alcohol to sanitise it, and then test it to see if it causes a reaction.
  • When in doubt, just remember that your eyes are one of the most sensitive parts of your body, and also one you definitely don’t want to damage unnecessarily. Mascaras, eyeliners, and even some types of eyeshadow can expire much faster than you’d expect, so they are definitely the first products to get rid of if you’re in any doubt about their quality.

No makeup product is worth risking your health for; so if in doubt, throw it out.