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Shelf Life and Expiration Dating of Cosmetics

FDA sometimes receives questions from consumers and industry, asking about shelf life and expiration dates for cosmetics. Here are answers to some common questions on this subject.

What is a cosmetic product’s shelf life?

A product’s “shelf life” generally means the length of time you can expect a product to look and act as expected and to stay safe for use. This length of time varies, depending on the type of product, how it is used, and how it is stored.

What factors affect shelf life, and how?

Over time, cosmetics start to degrade or break down for a number of reasons. Here are some common ones:

  • Dipping fingers into a product adds microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi (mold and yeast), which need to be controlled, for example, by preservatives.
  • Over time, however, preservatives can break down, allowing bacteria and fungi to grow.
  • Applicators, especially mascara wands, are exposed to bacteria and fungi each time you use them.
  • Emulsions, which are mixtures of water and oil, can separate. 
  • Exposure to moisture, such as in a bathroom, may make it easier for bacteria and fungi to grow.
  • Products can dry out, causing them to harden and crack.
  • Temperature changes and exposure to sunlight and air can cause changes in color and texture and may cause the products to smell.

Do some cosmetics have shorter shelf lives than others?

Eye-area cosmetics tend to have shorter shelf lives than other products, which may cause eye infections that can be serious. Manufacturers usually recommend discarding mascara two to four months after purchase. That’s because each time a person uses mascara, it’s exposed to bacteria and fungi.

Does FDA have rules for cosmetic shelf life and expiration dates on cosmetic labels?

There are no U.S. laws or regulations that require cosmetics to have specific shelf lives or have expiration dates on their labels. However, manufacturers are responsible for making sure their products are safe.  FDA considers determining a product’s shelf life to be part of the manufacturer’s responsibility.

Not all “personal care products” are regulated as cosmetics. Some, such as sunscreen products and acne treatments, are drugs under the law. Some, such as makeup and moisturizers that are also sunscreens, with “SPF” labeling, are regulated as both cosmetics and drugs.

Drugs, including those that are both drugs and cosmetics, must be tested for stability (see the regulations at 21 CFR 211) and are required to have expiration dates printed on the labels. Manufacturers must make sure their drug products are safe and effective until their expiration dates.

To learn more, see “Is It a Cosmetic, a Drug, or Both? (Or Is It Soap?).”

What about industry guidelines?

Based on inspections of cosmetics manufacturers, FDA is aware that some companies test products by exposing samples to different temperatures and humidity levels, to see how different conditions affect the products. This helps determine how long a product will stay safe and usable under normal conditions. Some companies also track how long their products have been on store shelves and alert stores when it is time to discard them.

However, the law does not require cosmetics companies to share testing and tracking information with FDA. If you would like to know how a company tests cosmetic shelf life and keeps track of products on the market, you will need to contact the company.

Steps consumers can take:

How long you can use a cosmetic safely also depends on you. Here are tips to help keep your cosmetics safe:

  • If mascara becomes dry, throw it away. Do not add water or, even worse, saliva to moisten it, because that will introduce bacteria into the product. If you have an eye infection, talk with your health care provider, stop using all eye-area cosmetics, and throw away those you were using when the infection occurred.
  • Don’t share makeup. You may be sharing an infection. "Testers" at cosmetic counters in stores are even more likely to become contaminated than the same products in your home. If you feel you must test a cosmetic before you buy it, apply it with a new, unused applicator, such as a fresh cotton swab.
  • Keep containers and applicators clean.
  • Store cosmetics properly. For example, don’t leave them where they are exposed to heat, such as in a hot car. Heat can make preservatives break down and cause bacteria and fungi to grow faster.
  • Be wary of products offered for sale in flea markets or re-sold over the Internet. Some may be past their shelf life, already used, diluted, or tampered with in other ways. They may even be counterfeit, “fake” versions of the product you think you’re buying.

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