How Skin Care Can Lose Its Power — And How To Stop It From Happening

You already know why antioxidants are a big deal in skin care: they neutralize free radicals, those wrinkle-causing baddies produced by sunlight, stress, air pollution, and other environmental stressors. Some researchers have gone so far as to say that antioxidant-based products more important than SPFs in battling aging and cancer, since they create a barrier on the skin to protect from not only harmful UV rays, but deeper-penetrating IR (infrared) rays as well. While there's no shortage of research touting the benefits of antioxidants, intel on the best way to handle and store these products is harder to come by.
Here’s why: The FDA doesn’t require cosmetic companies to print expiration dates or handling instructions on their products. What’s more, FDA spokesperson Tamara Ward acknowledges that a product’s shelf life can stretch from months to years, depending on the formulation and its packaging. “Consumers should be aware that expiration dates are simply rules of thumb," she says. "A product’s safety may expire long before the expiration date if a product has not been properly stored.”
So, how do we maximize the wrinkle-fighting powers in antioxidant-based products? We checked in with a few derms for the scoop on how to get the most from products with vitamins A, C and E.
Sun Salutations
Just like with our bodies, active ingredients in our products are sensitive to light and heat. Vitamin A (retinol) is surprisingly more stable in over-the-counter products than in stronger, prescription doses, according to Beverly Hills-based dermatologist Dr. Vicki Rapaport, who explains that part of the reason Retin-A users are advised to stay out of the sun is because the rays “inactivate Retin-A, and to a lesser degree, retinol, making it almost like you didn’t apply it at all.”
Meanwhile, vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid), which may inhibit UV sun damage, is highly unstable. Because it’s sun-sensitive, it’s best to pair a vitamin C-based product with a broad-spectrum sunscreen (and one that hasn’t been kicking around since last summer, of course.)
Pick the Right Packaging
Dermatologist Dr. Joshua Ziechner, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City, favors pumps to jars. That's because you don’t have to stick your fingers in a container, possibly spreading bacteria. Dr. Zoe Draelos, consulting professor of Dermatology at Duke University, who conducts clinical research trials for over-the-counter skincare products, suggest pumps with one-way valves. "They dispense, product but do not allow air to enter the dispensing bag," she notes.
If using a product not dispensed by a pump, Ziechner recommends using a disposable or freshly-washed metal applicator to cut down on contamination. One more rule to remember while applying skin care products? “Just like with appetizers at a party, never double dip,” he says.
Calculate An Expiration Date
So, how long can antioxidants stay effective in various products? It all boils down to the products’ formulation, preservatives and packaging; look for the small "open jar" sign, which lists how long, in months, you have to use the product. To get the true scoop on your particular products, contact the manufacturer and ask for that product’s specific shelf life and handling information. “All good companies stability-test their products,” Draelos explains. If the company is legit, it should have specific data on how long you should keep it around.
Finally, Rapaport reminds us: “Don’t hoard products. Use your products and replenish your favorites or replace them with newer ones, one at a time.” At the end of the day, antioxidants will help save our skin whether we are smokers, boozers or stressers — but a line is drawn at hoarders.
Photo: Courtesy of SkinCeuticals

More from Skin Care