In the United States, the government doesn’t set standards for the use of preservatives in makeup or require expiration dates on cosmetics labels. But we do have the FDA TikTok. Like it or not, the app has become a de facto (and highly unreliable) database for reporting concerns about the safety of cosmetics — including the recent allegation that a “clean” concealer from Kosas grew mold nine months after it was opened.
Although there are no laws regulating how cosmetics are preserved or how long they should remain stable, the FDA does require that all cosmetics manufacturers ensure the safety of their products. “Clean and traditional products are tested the same way,” and must pass the same stability tests, says cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline, the founder of KKT Consultants, a product-development firm. That means “clean” preservative systems can be just as effective as traditional ones. But just because they can be effective doesn’t mean they are. And that goes for traditional formulas too! If a product separates, smells funky, or changes color or scent after it’s opened, stop using it.
“In general, color cosmetics are usually formulated to remain stable for up to six months from the day of opening,” says Koestline. If makeup doesn’t contain water, it may last longer than that (bacteria needs water to grow). But, if it’s eye makeup — especially mascara, which has an applicator that can introduce contaminants — you should use it within three months of opening, says Koestline.
Before we get into the details of how chemists preserve “clean” makeup, I have to point out that the term has no legal definition. Some brands call themselves “clean” to indicate they formulate without ingredients that could be linked to health issues or environmental concerns, and they generally do this by developing products that will adhere to the European Union’s cosmetics regulations or retailer guidelines such as Clean at Sephora and/or the Credo Clean Standard. Koesteline says that when brands adhere to these guidelines, they usually choose to formulate their products without preservatives such as BHT, BHA, methylisothiazolinone, diazolidinyl urea, and parabens — all of which are found in traditional products and will be noted on the ingredient list (parabens are the ingredients that end in —paraben).
So, does makeup without those particular preservatives expire or grow bacteria or fungus more quickly than traditional cosmetics that do use them? Not if it’s been formulated properly, says Koesteline. Chemists will use other ingredients to stabilize their creations. For example, they might add phenoxyethanol, a broad-spectrum preservative that prevents the growth of microorganisms and is approved for use in Europe in concentrations up to one percent. Even if a brand doesn’t want to use phenoxyethanol — perhaps because there are concerns it can cause allergic reactions, especially in children — there are other ways to make a product stable. “When I’m asked to avoid phenoxyethanol, I’ll use several combinations of other preservatives to make sure my formula is optimized,” says Koestline, who cites sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, sodium levulinate, and sodium anisate as examples of other “clean” stabilizing ingredients.
But regardless of how a product is stabilized or what preservatives it uses, you should still toss your water-based makeup after six months and water-based eye makeup after three months. Even if it looks and smells fine. “Bacterial infections, unlike a mold or a yeast infection, are extremely hard to detect,” says Koesteline.
So, now that you’ve read the expert advice, are you going to follow it? If you’re anything like me, you’re not sure. Six months isn’t a lot of time to use up a beauty product! I just looked in one of my makeup drawers, and there’s an Anna Sui eye glitter that I got when I worked at CosmoGirl — a magazine that folded 15 years ago! And I know I’m not the only makeup hoarder. So I asked Koestline to give it to me straight: What could actually go wrong? It’s not like I’m going to apply my makeup to any open cuts or scratches. She said it depends on the microbial species that grow, but possible complications from applying a contaminated product on intact skin, “range from mild redness to cellulitis to a full-blown infection that can spread to other parts of your body, not just confined to the area of application.”
Welp. If that’s not enough of a warning, I don’t know what is. Do yourself a favor: Look through your makeup bag and that old plastic bin under the sink, and clear out the cream and liquid makeup that’s been open longer than six months. (Powder products should be good for up to two years.) If nothing else, it’s an excuse to get some new products you’ll actually use.
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