Expiration, contamination and curation: the ultimate guide to spring cleaning your beauty stash

For the beauty obsessed, there’s no harder, more sentimental spring clean than the seasonal purging of your makeup drawers, shelves and bags. As need-now skincare and makeup launch throughout the year — and your then-favourites lose their place in your product rotation — once-upon-a-time curations of essentials grow to become more beast than beauty.

Once a product is opened and dipped into, the clock begins to tick on its effectiveness, performance and general safety, and with so many varying forms, formulas and uses, knowing if — or when — to dispose of something can be a little tricky. If you’re ready to cull your collection — or make the most of what you have — keep reading: we’re dishing the dirt on cleaning up.

Your first port of call: the ‘PAO’.

That cute little open jar symbol featured on almost any and every item of skincare or beauty you own? That’s called a PAO, short for ‘period after opening’. It will always feature a number in its centre — usually 6, 12, 18 or 24 — indicating how many months the preservative system in the product will be able to fight off bacteria (with maximum strength) once opened. Once that time is up, it doesn’t mean that the preservative system becomes ineffective immediately, it just means it might start to become a little bit less effective.

In many cases, this symbol acts like a guarantee for brands, and if they know that their ingredients will start to degrade, they will often provide a guideline for how quickly to use the product.

As a general guide, products like eyeliner and mascara that come in close and direct contact with your eyes shouldn’t be used for longer than three to six months. Powders like blush, bronzer and eyeshadow are good to go for one to two years, and cream products like foundation and lipstick tend to stay strong for up to two years too (keeping in mind that if they’re in a pot rather than a pump or stick, they’re more susceptible to dirt and contamination — more on fingers later). Natural products have minimal preservatives, and therefore will typically have shorter shelf-lives. For skincare — from cleansers to serums to creams — a blanket rule of six to 12 months from opening is your safest bet.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Wash. Your. Brushes.

Brushes hold the gold medal for carrying germs and bacteria from your face, to your products, back to your face again, so the hottest tip to ensure you’re keeping your makeup in mint condition is to clean your brushes regularly. It’s a task that none of us truly love to do, but one that will save your products from unsanitary bacteria and early degradation, and your face from unwanted breakouts (no thank you).

As you get into the thick of your spring clean, wash all your brushes, dump the ones that are looking a little too loved, and set in place a regular brush-washing routine, (at least once a week) so it becomes a habit rather than a chore. Something as simple as using clean brushes will make your makeup appear more seamless than ever, reduce the risk of reaction or inflammation on your skin, and can extend the life and hygiene of your favourite products.

Still confused? Use your senses.

If you’re unsure whether a product has expired or gone ‘off’, you have all the tools you need to make a judgement call: your five senses. Most — if not all — beauty products will change smell, texture, colour or overall appearance if it has past its prime time, so if something’s looking or smelling a bit suspicious, bin it. Products like mascara tend to give off a dramatically different scent, and facial creams are known to separate or turn a bit yellow. Waste is not the aim of the game, but if your products are starting to show these signs — and have been opened for longer than their PAO — they will do you absolutely no favours and need to go.

Ditch the double dip.

Just like how the bacteria carried by our brushes can deteriorate makeup, so do our hands, infamous for spreading dirt and germs like wildfire. We’ve all been prone to dipping our fingers directly into a pot of mask, cleanser or moisturiser — or even cream blushes and highlighters — but as soon as you’ve had that first dip, your product begins to change, becoming less effective.

Avoiding the double dip is now easier than ever, with brands like Tatcha, Drunk Elephant, Cosmetics 27 and more supplying scoops and applicators with their potted skincare. This ensures that their formulas can stick to their claims for their full life span, avoid contamination, and look great on your face, always. If your favourite product doesn’t come with one, you can source your own from products past, or from your local two-dollar or beauty supply store. Alternatively, you can get thrifty and upcycle: those small plastic ice cream spoons? Perfect for scooping up your detoxifying mud mask or luxurious night cream.

When actives become not so active.

If acids and actives play a large part in your skincare regime — think vitamin C, retinol, glycolic acid and the like — then paying attention to packaging and PAO is more important than ever.

Sensitive to light exposure, these ingredients need to be kept in air and light-proof packaging to truly stay active and effective. Brands like Kiehl’s, Dr Dennis Gross and Perricone MD make this easy with dark amber-tinted glass bottles. While use after their PAO might not affect your skin negatively per say, they do start to become redundant inclusions to your routine as they lose their potency. If they’ve been lingering on your bathroom shelf for a little too long, ditch them for a fresh batch.

Need some spring cleaning inspiration? Tune into our recent livestream for tips and tricks direct from the Beauty Lab. Or, Ask MECCA! Chat live to our MECCA in-store experts, either online or by video call, for personalised beauty advice. We're your beauty best friend on call – just click the speech bubble icon in the bottom right corner of your screen.

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