Should beauty products be stamped with expiration dates like cartons of milk, indicating how long they will last before turning?
Some industry professionals say yes, pointing to the increasing number of all-natural and organic products that have shunned preservatives. Conversely, there are those multitasking unguents that layer chemical upon chemical, which can increase volatility and shorten the product’s life span.
“As companies create more complex products to simplify consumers’ regimens, they end up with a plethora of problems,” said Joel Schlessinger, a dermatologist in Omaha and the president and founder of LovelySkin.com, a beauty site specializing in products mostly available in a dermatologist’s or a cosmetic surgeon’s office.
“Instead of applying two creams, you’re applying one, and there are certain products that simply don’t play well with each other,” he said.
Benzoyl peroxide, for example, has a shelf life of three months once opened, Schlessinger said, and can degrade the antibiotics it’s sometimes paired with even when sealed.
“That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, but if it’s benzoyl peroxide plus an antibiotic, you’re losing the other product’s effect,” he said.
Other popular ingredients vulnerable to heat and sunlight are plant extracts, antioxidants, retinol, glycolic acids and vitamin C. Packaging is also important: Eye cream, for example, tends to have a high bacterial growth rate because it tends to come in jars, said Ron Robinson, a chemist in Manhattan who specializes in the technology of cosmetic ingredients and the founder and chief executive of www.beautystat.com, which reviews new products.
“Ingredients may not coexist well if they have different pH levels,” said Ruthie Harper, an internist in Austin, Texas, and the creator of Skinshift, a line of products supposedly tailored to a patient’s genetic makeup. “One may be low-level or more acidic, and another might be too high or have more alkaline. The mixture may render them neutral or inactive. Other ingredients may not be chemically compatible. The truth is, the more ingredients, the shorter the usage.”
How short is rarely clear. Expiration dates on over-the-counter cosmetics or skin care products, with the exception of sunscreen, which is classified as a drug, aren’t mandated by the Food and Drug Administration. (Skinshift does not use expiration dates, although Harper said batch production is monitored and tracked.) Companies can perform stability tests and stamp their products accordingly, but it’s costly and time-consuming.
“Most companies do not want to delay the launch of their product, which could take six months to a year,” said Schlessinger, who said he spent $70,000 on stability testing for his product line, FixMySkin Balms, each item of which is stamped.
Even with such measures, dates are not always reliable. Just as with milk, dates can be negated by improper storage or handling.
Lush, the Britain-based all-natural company, considers the manufacture and use-by dates it places on every item in its catalog a major selling point. While the majority of Lush’s goods have a 14-month shelf life, their BioFresh Face masks, the cornerstone of the brand, expire after 21 days, said Erica Vega, Lush’s lead product and brand trainer.
“We make them fresh weekly with fruits and vegetables, essential oils and cleansing clays, and deliver them to the shops, where they sit on ice like a fresh buffet,” Vega said. “We want to provide the full effects of the vitamins, antioxidants and enzymes found in the fruits and vegetables.”
Lush uses minimal packaging, but some companies are going in the other direction, with active ingredients sold together but in separate compartments.
“Air and bacteria begin to break down the purity and efficacy of ingredients once the product has been used,” Robinson said. “Sterile packaging and new one-way pumps that block air from coming into the product extend the life.”
In January, Decleor released Life Radiance Double Radiance ($67), which contains one part cream (for radiance, the company claims) and one part gel (to protect the skin) — presented together but divided in separate tubes. Similarly packaged items include SkinMedica TNS Essential Serum ($245), Jan Marini Age Intervention Duality ($90), La Prairie Skin Caviar Liquid Lift ($500) and Remede Intensive Double Serum ($130).
“In this case there is no shelf-life risk because the customer is mixing gel and cream just before use,” said Michel Sabadie, director of research and development for Shiseido International France, which owns Decleor. “If they were already mixed together, the shelf life would be less than one day.”
Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in the dermatology department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, said there was scientific validity to keeping active ingredients separate until the moment of application.
“Because we are using more and more combination therapies and ingredients that can potentially inactivate each other, it’s only logical for companies to create new ways to distribute them,” he said.
But Robinson also said this was clever marketing.
“It’s more of a visual cue,” he said. “The consumer take-away is, ‘two products in one, it must be delivering two benefits.’ ”
Regardless of whether your products bear expiration dates, he said, extending the life of these products is as easy as storing then in a cool place rather than in your bathroom, which tends to be hot, humid and wet. Using an applicator or cotton swab instead of your finger will decrease bacteria. And adding water only invites germs.
As with any relationship, you need to know when to say goodbye.
Robinson said, “A product that’s separating, has changed in color or smells differently are signs they’re ready for the trash.”