I Still Use My Old Makeup — Here’s Why It’s Okay (Sometimes)

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 seven 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 tossing 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 and four homes. 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 2021 study suggested that one in four of us are using expired makeup, and TikToker Emma Abrahamson 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 original in 2018. Abrahamson 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 Just as I had suspected, 100% of respondents fessed up to using out-of-date products on a regular basis.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. And with more and more beauty brands increasing their prices, 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 expiration 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.
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?

The problem with using expired makeup

"The concern after the [expiration] 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 [molds]," Dr Emma Wedgeworth, a consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, tells Refinery29. "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 expiration 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.

When to throw away liquid makeup

Besides the PAO, when a product is on its last legs you might spot some unpleasant changes to the formula. According to Pagán, 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.

When to throw away lipsticks

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," Pagán 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.

When to throw away mascara

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 Pagán. 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’ve all done with the wand forces air into the tube — and that's asking for bacterial contamination. The good thing is it has become more widely known that the better way to use mascara is to swirl the wand rather than pump. Either way, if a mascara has dried out or changed texture, colour or scent, it has expired and must be thrown away immediately.

When to throw away powder makeup

Here's the good news: Old powder eyeshadows, bronzers, highlighters and blushers might just be okay to use. "Powders don't usually contain any water to support microbial growth or oils that could go rancid," says cosmetic chemist Alex Padgett. "The majority of powder products are just powder and so they won't really expire." In fact, Padgett 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 Padgett, "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 Padgett. "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."

How to clean out your makeup collection

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 mold 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. Organizations like Terracycle help to recycle hard-to-process beauty packaging. 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 washing or 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 at drug stores).
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 collection, 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. The “waste not, want not” attitude is a valid one, especially in 2024. 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.  
This article was originally published in November 2022 and has since been updated.

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