How Bad Is Expired Makeup Really?

Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
This time every year, we read the same story about how vital it is to spring-clean our makeup bags. If we don’t heed the warnings, we (allegedly) risk nasty breakouts and eye infections or, worse, skin parasites and loss of vision. It all seems a bit dramatic, no?
When was the last time you got an infection from expired makeup? We’re not talking about mascara, blush, and shadow testers from the department-store counter, but those cosmetics from your own stash. Pink eye? Staph infection? Cold sore?
Don't get us wrong: We know that using expired products is probably not the safest, healthiest habit. The thing is, we don’t know many people (minus Bob Costas) who have dealt with makeup-related health issues. So, what are the odds of it happening? It got us wondering: Just how bad are expired beauty products really?
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Before we start cleaning house and tossing away our beloved — if a bit old — makeup, we decided to ask the experts to give us the real deal on the matter. Here’s their advice on when to cut our cosmetics loose and just how risky it is to use them past their P.A.O., or period after opening.
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Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
Lipstick
So, you’re obsessed with a limited-edition lipstick you got a while ago, and, since it’s no longer available, you can’t bring yourself to toss it? We get it. The good news is that a lipstick can last upwards of a year before it starts to dry out. But, here’s an interesting fact to note: Because lipstick is made from hard wax, it captures more bacteria than lip gloss. And, cleaning it with alcohol (like they do at department-store counters) just dries it out faster, which makes the bacteria grow faster.

If you decide to go rogue and use it anyway, according to Dr. Debra Luftman, a Beverly Hills-based dermatologist and author of The Beauty Prescription: The Complete Formula for Looking and Feeling Beautiful, “The worst-case scenario is, if you share it, you could get herpes or contact dermatitis. There are so many variables, but when you’re using your own lipstick, the risk [of infection] isn’t that great — maybe 10% to 20%.” Her sage advice? Stick with lipstick pencils that you can sharpen. It brings the risk factor down to zilch.
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Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
Lip Gloss
In our eyes, nothing compares to the subtle shine that a lip gloss imparts on our pouts. For that reason, we’ve held on to some of them a bit too long. But, it seems that the “throw out your lip gloss after three months” rule is more of a scare tactic: “Technically, if you clean the wand once a day, you could keep it for a year or until it starts to show signs that it’s gone bad,” says Dr. Luftman, who sits on the advisory board for skin-care brand Simple.

As for those telltale signs? “It separates, looks cloudy, and starts to smell,” says Raychel Wade, cosmetic makeover consultant for CheekToChic and global color ambassador for La Prairie. Hypothetically speaking, what happens if you give it a glide after that? “I’m seeing more and more rashes from old lip products,” says Dr. Luftman. “But, they can also cause a staph infection, and those are more serious.” Want your gloss to go the distance — safely? Dr. Luftman suggests buying ones with silicone wands, which stay cleaner longer.
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Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
Mascara
Dark, moist mascara tubes can be a haven for germs. And, sticking a wand full of bacteria near the one feature you use to SEE is a bit risky. How risky, exactly? “If your mascara is contaminated, I’d say you stand a 50% to 60% chance of getting blepharitis or conjunctivitis,” says Dr. Luftman. Trust us when we say you don’t want either of those things. Thankfully, there is a silver lining: “Mascara’s got a built-in shelf life,” says Wade. “After three months, it dries out or runs out. It’s one of those products that you can use until the end.”
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Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
Blush
If Hoarders ever did a segment on excessive blushes housed in a makeup bag, it would star us. As far as using those blushes past their prime? Apparently it depends on the formula. “For cream, I would say six months; for powder a year,” advises Dr. Luftman. “Powder formulas contain zinc and titanium that actually prevent bacteria from growing.”

Once you see oil marks streak across the top and the color changes, cracks, or smells, it’s time to chuck it. “The biggest issue is the transferring of oil and bacteria from your face to the pot and vice versa,” says Dr. Luftman. “The biggest concern would be getting impetigo — a group of pustules. And, it’s a high chance.” The way to avoid that is to use disposable makeup sponges or loose powder blush that comes in a tub with a perforated top and doses out just the amount you need.
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Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
Foundation
There's something about old foundation that really skeeves us out. We’re not sure why, but the experts feel the same way. “La Prairie’s P.A.O. states cream foundations expire at six months and powder formulas at 12 months. After that, foundations start to oxidize and change color,” says Wade. Opting for foundation with a spray or pump cap can buy you more time. “Air-tight packaging nixes bacteria from growing in the product, so it lasts longer and removes the potential for getting skin irritation and infections, like cellulitis," adds Dr. Luftman.
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Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
Eyeshadow
Eyeshadow is one of those products that if it gets tainted, you have to toss it — STAT. According to Dr. Luftman, infections like pink eye are extremely contagious, and severe allergic reactions are something you don’t want to mess with. “Shadow should be replaced between four and six months,” she states. While that may seem a little hasty, Wade offers a positive spin on the situation. “Trendy colors like purple, blue, and that red shade everyone is wearing right now — you get sick of them after a while,” she says. “Plus, you need to update your shades at the start of each season anyway.”
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Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
Eyeliner
Well, this was a bit of a shocker: While mascara and shadow get the boot past a certain point, liner is a totally different deal. “For the ones you sharpen, you can use them until the bottom because you are taking off areas that might be infected,” says Dr. Luftman. Of course, this is contingent on one thing: using a clean sharpener after every use. Cream or liquid liners (or any pencils of the "self-sharpening" variety) should be replaced after three months. These guidelines are especially critical if you apply liner on the inside rim, which covers the mucosal membrane. “I’ve seen cases where the liner has gotten embedded in the glands, creating a tattoo effect — it never comes off,” says Dr. Luftman. “Those glands need to breathe so you can have proper eye fluid and function.” Noted.
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Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
Brushes
More often than not, brushes are the culprit behind most bacterial infections, according to our experts. “Generally, they are stored together and wrapped up in a warm, dark environment — it’s a breeding ground for bacteria,” says Dr. Luftman. “Then, you swoosh those brushes into your products and over your face. I once had a patient that got a staph infection on her cheek from a brush.” The key to preventing contamination: care. “Brushes are made with real hair, so you have to clean them like real hair,” says Wade. “I shampoo my brushes once a week, and in between shampooing, I spritz them with a brush cleaner to kill any germs.” If you keep them clean, then you can (supposedly) keep them forever.
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