Is It Unhygienic To Buy Skincare In Tubs & Jars? An Expert Explains

Illustrated by Olivia Santner
Dear Daniela,

Is it a bad idea to buy skincare products in tubs or jars? I never really thought about it until recently when I saw an influencer on Instagram say that they only use pumps or tubes because jars are dirty and that when you take the lid off to use it, you expose the product to light and air which degrade the product. Is that true? I have a few products in jars I really like but don’t want to keep wasting my money!

Bella, 23 
All good conspiracy theories have a nugget of truth – that’s what makes them believable. A kernel of a fact (and when I say fact, I mean something that is maybe provable in some context or has enough of a ring of truth to be believable) which gets kicked down a hill, picking up extrapolation, causation without correlation and a dose of fear-mongering as it goes, until you have a big snowball of conspiracy. The beauty industry is full of them! And this is a stubborn one to beat.

The first time I heard this particular idea was during my shop girl days. A colleague or maybe someone from head office floated the idea and once it was out there, I too believed it. It makes sense for all the reasons you’ve suggested — our hands and fingers are pretty gross and dirty, and sticking them in a product and then sealing the lid back on implies that the cream or lotion will also get gross and dirty. The potency thing also sounds just scientific enough to be believed, especially for maybe-less-stable ingredients like vitamin C which we hear a lot about.
But that’s all it is: a conspiracy theory. "Any reputable brand that makes a skincare product in a jar will formulate the product with enough preservatives to stop bacterial growth," said Jen Novakovich, a cosmetic chemist who uses the moniker The Eco Well. "The brand will likely do something known as stability testing to make sure that the formula holds up in its designated packaging, and alongside how they expect consumers to use it," she continued. "There’s simple ways to ensure a product won’t go off like that, such as adjusting the pH of the formula to make it inhospitable to bacterial growth." Plus, you can always wash your hands before doing your skincare, you know.

Then, potency. Jars can still offer great, long-term product potency, providing the product is well formulated, said Jen. "There’s a lot of ways you can ensure potency in a jar, like encapsulating the active ingredients," she offered. Encapsulation is the coating of an active ingredient within a kind of undetectable shell that offers it protection within the formula or helps it be better delivered to a deeper layer of the skin. You might have seen retinol suspended in a soothing or moisturizing agent to help stop irritation, for example. "If you’re someone who is concerned about this, you can contact the brand and ask them how they tested the formula to make sure that it's fine. Reputable brands will be happy to share that information," said Jen.
There’s an argument that jars could even offer better protection than pumps and tubes when it comes to products breaking down in sunlight. Jars tend to have thicker walls than other kinds of packaging, which can slow that process down somewhat. 
Ultimately, some products need to be in a jar because of their texture. Body scrubs were Jen’s example and super thick moisturizers or body lotions probably won’t be as easy to use from a tube or pump. If you’re shopping with a very small indie brand, there’s a chance they may not have been able to afford the stability and potency testing as it is expensive. For bigger brands, though, it’s not something you should worry about at all. But do make sure you use up the product by the use-by date — it won’t last forever. On the back of the bottle or tub there ought to be a little lid-off symbol with a number and letter combo like 6M or 12M. This indicates how long (the M stands for months) you have to use up the product after opening it before it gets a little funky.

Happy shopping!

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