I Still Use My Old Makeup — How Bad Is That, Really?

Photographed by Jessica Garcia.
I have a confession to make. I have an unhealthy emotional attachment to my Too Faced Chocolate Gold Eye Shadow Palette. You might think that's not exactly worthy of an admission but what if I told you that I bought it in 2017?
Almost five years past its prime (and now discontinued), I still run my fingers over its buttery matte shades and gasp in awe as I glide its vibrant shimmers across my eyelids, blissfully ignoring the little printed date on the packaging that's practically begging me to throw it away. But I don't plan on binning it any time soon.
The shadows remain pigmented as hell and I still catch a whiff of sweet cocoa scent every time I open it. This trusty palette has seen me through some monumental moments in my life, including university, five jobs, four homes and a pandemic. If I'm being really honest, it has outlasted all of my romantic relationships, too. At this point, the palette has sentimental value and since I've only hit pan on three out of the 16 shades, getting rid of it feels like a waste.
I'm not alone in this predicament. A recent study suggested that one in four of us are using expired makeup, while TikToker Emma Abrahamson recently went viral for wishing her Urban Decay Naked Palette a "happy 10 year anniversary". She, too, continues to use her palette and it's hard to blame her seeing as the brand discontinued the iconic product in 2018. Emma was met with some criticism but the relatable video gained hundreds of comments in solidarity. One person said: "I know it's completely unsafe to use at this point, but you can pry my 2012 Naked Palette out of my cold dead hands." Another wrote: "Mines gotta be at least 11! They grow up so fast."
@emma.abrahamson bye I know it has to be expired & guess what I don’t care. hot girls still have their naked palette. #nakedpalette #urbandecay #makeup ♬ original sound - Grinny
To find out what skeletons lurk in the closets (or, rather, the makeup bags) of my friends, I conducted an informal Instagram poll. Just as I had suspected, 100% of respondents fessed up to using out-of-date products on a regular basis. Why? The cost of living is at a high and makeup is expensive. Glossier and The Ordinary are just a couple of brands who have announced price increases of late, so getting the most out of the beauty products you already own makes sense.
My DMs were flooded with anecdotes about decade-old Anastasia Beverly Hills Dipbrow Pomades and limited-edition MAC collaborations. Someone sent photographic evidence of a 2009 eyeshadow palette that she uses daily. That's practically vintage. Even those who work in beauty turn a blind eye to expiry dates every now and then. "The Jackie Aina x Anastasia Beverly Hills palette from 2018 has me in a chokehold," confessed beauty writer Vanese Maddix.

No matter how expensive, rare or beloved, every product will eventually go off. The stability of an emulsion isn't infinite and it breaks down over time.

Now that we've established how common it is to keep expired products, let's get into the nitty gritty: is it really that bad to use old makeup? I asked Dr Emma Wedgeworth, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson. "The concern after the expiry date is that products may change composition [the way a mixture is made up] and therefore be more at risk of contamination from bacteria and moulds," she says. "By applying this to your face, you could be causing irritation or pore blockage," resulting in anything from itchiness to breakouts. Dr Wedgeworth adds: "If you already have a compromised skin barrier [e.g. dry, scaly, irritated skin] or an existing skin condition, you are at a higher risk of infection or irritation." Especially in these instances, Dr Wedgeworth advises sticking closely to the expiry dates.
Dermatologists err on the side of caution, especially as they treat multiple skin complaints a day. But how can you tell if your makeup has expired in the first place? It's important to note that no matter how expensive, rare or beloved, every product will eventually go off. The stability of an emulsion isn't infinite and it breaks down over time. It's a cosmetic chemist's job to run stability testing in labs to determine the shelf life of a product.
"When products are tested for stability, something called the PAO (period after opening) is decided upon and that tells you how long a product will be guaranteed 'good' or stable for after you've opened it," says Ramón Pagán, cosmetic chemist, product developer and aesthetician. "If you look at the back of your cosmetics, you'll see a little jar design with a number written inside it. That's the PAO." The number will normally be followed by an M (for 'months'), making it easy to keep track of a product's use-by date.
@itsfernandadiaz to my old make up.. no mold no case in my eyes 💘 #expiredmakeup #nyxlipliner ♬ original sound - Fernanda Diaz
Besides the PAO, when a product is on its last legs you might spot some unpleasant changes to the formula. According to Ramón, these vary from product to product. "Liquid products like foundations are a mixture of water and silicone or oil, and when these go bad it can result in the two phases separating. You may notice a change in consistency, texture and how it wears. Because it contains water, it can also develop microbial growth," he says. You might not see the bacteria growing but if your go-to complexion product is starting to resemble a lava lamp or expels an inconsistent runny texture, it's time to say farewell. 
Liquids are probably the most obvious but what about lipsticks and cream products? You might not notice a change in these until a while after doomsday. That's because oil- and wax-based formulas are usually waterless and therefore at less risk of serious microbial contamination. That's a good thing, but it doesn't mean you can keep them forever. "These products contain lipids that will oxidise, so they'll start to go rancid and smell 'off' eventually," Ramón warns. A lot of the time, lipstick ends up smelling crayon-like. If this happens, it's a good indication that the product has gone off.

There's good news: old powder eyeshadows, blushers, bronzers and highlighters might just be okay to use.

You're not going to want to hear this, either, but mascara is a hotbed for bacteria and should be replaced every three to six months. "Being used so close to the mucous membrane of the eye area (and then inserted back into the moist mascara tube), the wand essentially inoculates microbes in a perfect environment for growth," says Ramón. Using mascara after it has expired could lead to eye infections. The way many of us tend to use mascara doesn't help, either. That habitual pumping action we all do with the wand forces air into the tube — and that's asking for bacterial contamination. If a mascara has dried out or changed texture, colour or scent, it has expired and must be thrown away immediately. 
Here's the good news: old powder eyeshadows, blushers, bronzers and highlighters might just be okay to use. "Powders don't usually contain any water to support microbial growth or oils that could go rancid," explains cosmetic chemist Alex Padgett. "The majority of powder products are just powder and so they won't really expire." In fact, Alex says she still uses a palette from 2014.
There are conditions to this lenience, though. "If you properly take care of your powder products," says Alex, "you don't have to throw them away after their expiration date." That means closing the lid every time you finish using a product and storing it in a dry environment (not a hot, humid bathroom). Make sure you're using clean brushes to apply powder products, too. "If you use your fingers to apply powder products, the natural oils from your skin may be left behind and cause a colour or texture change wherever you've been repeatedly touching it," says Alex. "Instead of being a powdery consistency, it'll be more dense, dark and may look wet. You'll need to throw them away in that case."
Beauty obsessives on Reddit have questioned whether expiration dates on products are a ploy to encourage consumers to buy more. Others reiterate the expert opinions in this article and point out that dates enable brands to safely predict how long their formulas will stay good for. Most brands will use some kind of safe preservative in their beauty products, for example. These are essential in cosmetics, otherwise we would be applying bacteria and mould to our skin. But there is a trend for 'clean' makeup without preservatives. The PAO on such makeup products is considerably shorter as a result.
Knowing all of this doesn't have to result in a makeup massacre. Start with streamlining your makeup bag by checking the PAO on all of your products. Once you've figured out which items are technically out of date, go through them and make an intuitive assessment using your senses. If in doubt, throw it out.
Provided your products are within date, in a decent condition and sanitised (you can buy makeup sanitising spray), you might want to pass products on to friends and family. Charities like Beauty Banks only accept new and unopened items, while Toiletries Amnesty accepts part-used toiletries (items that you have used only a handful of times and are mostly full). It might also be worth contacting your local women's charity to ask whether they receive unwanted makeup.
Once you've settled on what you're keeping, it's time to step up your hygiene game. This includes sanitising your hands before dipping your fingers into makeup and cleaning your makeup brushes weekly. Another trick I learned from the experts is to sharpen eye and lip pencils each time you use them to remove any bacterial growth on the top layer. It also pays to give your lipsticks a regular spritz with isopropyl alcohol (essentially rubbing alcohol, which you can buy from Amazon).
Throwing away makeup might seem environmentally irresponsible so it pays to be savvy when shopping. As well as looking at every remaining item inside your kit, ask yourself: Will I use this? And most importantly, do I need it? If the answer is no, it's probably best to leave it on the shelf. Ultimately though, there's a makeup hoarder inside many of us who grew up on beauty YouTube and haul videos. There's no shame in it. The 'waste not, want not' attitude is a valid one, especially in 2022. Makeup is expensive so rinsing a product for every last drop makes sense.
As for me? I think it's high time I listened to the experts so I'll be holding a funeral for my 5-year-old eyeshadow palette. May she rest in peace.  

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