The Shelf Life of Skincare Products: How To Keep Your Products In Their Peak Potency

Keep your skincare products in their peak potency!
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With huge hopes of having flawless skin, we fill our bathroom cabinets with skincare products. And we buy. And we buy. And we never stop. While the intention is positive, and it’s great having stocks of products for each part of the day, all concerns, and constantly swapping them every day, the truth is that the more we use one product, the less effective it becomes. The sad truth hurts — I know.

This post delves into skincare products’ shelf life and how much they truly last, no matter their expiration date. Also, you’ll learn to decode the labels and pick the right packaging not to let the external environment go in and weaken the formula. 

Period After Opening Vs. Expiration Date

To identify the shelf life of your skincare products, look for their PAO and BBD values on the label. But first, you need to understand the difference between these two terms: Period After Opening (PAO) and Best Before Date (BBD). Even if they might sound similar, they represent two different things you should always be aware of. 

PAO indicates the period a product can be used after the first time it was opened and used. This term is noted with a number and M letter from months. So now, when you see 3M, 6M, 12M, 24M, or 36M on your skincare products, you now know how to decode it.

On the flip side, BBD represents the shelf life of a product, meaning how long you can store it without opening it.

Even if they mean different things, PAO and BBD are somehow linked. Calculate your PAO within the period of Best Before Date. So, even if you didn’t open a product at all, you shouldn’t use it if its BBD date is out. For instance, if your product is dated with BBD 06.2022 and PAO 3M, you can open the product until June 2022 and use it for three months after opening it. But if you open the product in April 2022, you can only use it for two months because it reaches its expiration date. 

How products lose their potency

No matter their expiration date, it turns out that most skincare products lose potency after about two months of opening and re-opening them. And natural skincare products lose their potency even faster than that! 

Whether it’s the poor packaging, the preservatives system, or the watered-down formulas, our daily environment affects the potency of skincare products. By daily environment, I mean air, light, and heat — even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states it.[1]

Moreover, with jars we stick our fingers in and serums that allow these elements to go in and degrade formulas, it’s fair to say we often use ineffective skincare products. 

But here’s how you can keep your products in their peak potency.

Tips for using effective skincare products

With this in mind, it’s crucial to protect your skincare products from these damaging sources to keep them in their peak potency. 

Exposure to high temperatures can alter products’ texture, color, and scent and reduce effectiveness. A great way to stop that from happening is to store your serums, moisturizers, and masks in the fridge. Or in a mini-fridge, made for cosmetics, like this one by Cooluli

Antioxidants (especially vitamins A and C) are among the compounds that easily get destroyed by external factors, mainly warm temperatures, and light. Due to their chemical structure, these vitamins lose stability, oxidizing and degrading, hence becoming ineffective. If your product containing one of these vitamins changes color to a yellow/brown and gets a rancid odor, it’s about time you toss the product because it’s gone bad. 

When purchasing your vitamin A and C-infused products, ensure they’re in amber bottles. Also, never open your product in the bathroom after a hot bath because steam gets in and weakens the formula. 

Retinol is another ingredient we’re all fond of. But did you know it’s a temperamental compound that degrades pretty fast? It comes out that retinol is vulnerable to light and air and degrades quickly.[2] Ideally, when buying products enhanced with this oxygen-sensitive element — the gold standard of anti-aging — you could pick something with an airless pump.

Essential oils in natural products can vaporize and oxidize, minimizing their effectiveness and, sometimes, cosmetics’ scent.

Hyaluronic acid is another sensitive ingredient that loses potency when exposed to heat — it seems it breaks down at around 99F, while peptides start to lose potency at 104-degree heat.[3][4]

Warning signs also revolve around jars we always open and stick our fingers in. Bacteria and other micro-organisms from the air can settle into opened jars, leading to ingredients’ instability. This is why more and more brands are starting to release airtight packaging for moisturizers too.

The takeaway 

So, airless pumps and airtight packagings, amber bottles and fridge-store. And, for skincare hoarders (as me), stop impulsive skincare shopping if you already own a product for each step and part of the day. I know discounts are tempting but don’t buy yet if you can’t stop opening a product. Remember these tips next time you purchase your skincare products. 

  1. Shelf Life and Expiration Dating of Cosmetics, U.S. Food and Drug Administration
  2. Temova Rakuša, Ž, Škufca, P, Kristl, A, Roškar, R. Retinoid stability and degradation kinetics in commercial cosmetic products. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2021; 20: 2350– 2358.
  3. Thermal degradation of high molar mass hyaluronan in solution and in powder; comparison with BSA, Source
  4. Wool peptide derivatives for hand care, Source
Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu is the founder and editor-in-chief of Women's Concepts. She has over 5 years of experience working in the beauty editorial industry and dermatological research and was an acne sufferer for over a decade. Ana is now an IAO and CPD-accredited skincare consultant keen to teach others about the importance of a consistent routine. She covers a wide range of topics in skincare—from buzzy ingredients to anti-aging and acne advice. She holds a BA in Sociology and Political Sciences from the National School of Political and Administrative Studies. Find her on LinkedIn or Instagram.
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