Is It Time to Toss Your Cosmetics and Medicines?

If you’re like most women I know, you’ve probably amassed quite a collection of cosmetics and medicines. Various tubes of lipstick, half-used eye-shadow packs still with their original tiny brushes, foundation in different shades depending on the season, tiny sample bottles of body lotion from hotels. Not to mention, that unfinished bottle of antibiotics, the pain killers you bought on a trip to Mexico ages back and that ointment that the doctor prescribed many, many years ago. Sound familiar?

We keep these things around “just in case”. However, when it comes to old and dated cosmetics and medicines, you aren’t just accepting clutter, you may be putting your health at risk.

Logically, we know that toiletries and medicines don’t last forever. Most have shelf lives. Once past their ‘best before’ dates, cosmetics become a haven for bacteria, which can then be transferred to skin. This becomes especially problematic with products used near the eye. Medicines tend to lose their potency and therefore, their efficacy, but can also become risky due to a change in chemical composition. Just like cosmetics, certain expired medications are at risk of bacterial growth.

Proper storage is one way to help ensure that your cosmetics and medicines will remain safe and effective up to their expiration date. We tend to keep these products in our bathrooms, where the high temperatures and humidity contribute to faster deterioration. It’s not practical, but if it’s possible, it’s better to store them in a cool, dry place such as a dresser drawer, storage box, closet shelf or kitchen cabinet (away from hot appliances and the sink due to changing temperatures and humidity).

Spring is just around the corner and it’s a good time to visit your cosmetics counter and medicine cabinet. Here are some general guidelines for when to get rid of opened personal care products and medicines.

Cosmetic Products:

  • Cosmetics used near the eye (mascara, eye shadow for example): 4 – 6 months
  • Powders (including brush, bronzers and blushes: 2 years
  • Lipstick: 1 year
  • Moisturizers and foundations: 1 – 2 years
  • Cleansers: 1 year
  • Retinoids/retinol preparations: 1 year (start losing potency)
  • Alpha hydroxy acids (such as glycolic acid): 6 months. Alpha hydroxy acids can actually become more potent over time, increasing their potential to cause irritation
  • Antioxidants (like Vitamins C and E): 6 months
  • Sunscreen: 1 year

Many personal care products display details regarding when to toss them away. Look for guidance and follow it.


Throw medicines away upon expiration. All medicines should list this on their containers. While many retain most of their potency, some don’t so it’s best to exercise caution. Pharmacies will often take back and properly dispose of most over the counter and prescription medications. Don’t dispose of old drugs by flushing them down the drain or toilet as the chemicals may find their way into waterways and the environment.

Check expiration dates on both medicines and cosmetics and if something has a funky smell or the colors have started to change, toss it out. Immediately discard any make-up that is in a broken container or missing a lid.  If you have a hard time keeping track of when you opened a new product such as mascara or blush, write the date on the product with a sharpie.  That way you’ll know how long you’ve had it and when it’s time to toss it out.

The old adage, “When it doubt, throw it out” definitely applies in this case. Keep in mind also, that your nose and eyes can’t detect bacteria and spores. In this case it’s always better to be safe than sorry.