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Literally Nobody Throws Out Their Makeup When They Should

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Cosmetics have an expiration date, but who follows it?

Photo: Vinod Kumar/Getty Images

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All things must come to an end, even our makeup. Whether it’s the perfect tube of lipstick that’s four years old or an eyeshadow palette you’ve had even longer, it can be hard to let go. Though many articles warn of the dangers of using old makeup, complete with the advice of doctors, helpful infographics showing when things expire, and evidence of how much bacteria is living on our products, most of us still have a few old pieces in our collection.

Even Dr. Sonam Yadav, a cosmetics dermatologist, admitted to having a five-year-old stash of eyeshadows and creamy lipsticks stored in her fridge. Still, as the medical voice of reason, she reminded me that “expired products may cause serious skin and eye infections [and] allergic reactions [that] need lengthy complicated treatment.” She also recommended discarding “all liquid, gel, and cream products at the earliest sign of a change in consistency, even [if that happens] before expiry dates.”

So how long are we ignoring expiration dates? I interviewed five people with very different makeup routines and skill levels, from a makeup artist to someone who only wears it on special occasions, to ask what their oldest pieces were.

My own confession: I have an Urban Decay eyeliner I bought eight years ago, while still in high school, that should have gone in the trash after two years. It followed me during my teen years, through my degree, and into adulthood, where it gathers dust at the bottom of my makeup bag. While I wasn’t the only person holding onto something old, if this were a competition, my ancient eyeliner definitely won.

Second place would go to Josh, a makeup hobbyist and PhD student who owns a handful of used lipsticks given to zir five years ago by drag queen friends. Even though they should have been tossed after two years, the lipsticks’ true age are a mystery, since ze has no idea how long they were used for before being given away. Before our conversation, Josh hadn’t fully realized that makeup could go bad.

Amanda, a daily makeup wearer and 24-year-old masters student, describes herself as “not very good at throwing makeup away.” Her last major purge cleared out her high school makeup collection, and she has a six-year-old lipstick and various containers filled with bits of product she keeps intending to scrape out.

Fareena, a researcher who wears professional makeup daily and does “the whole nine yards” when she goes out, has held onto an Urban Decay palette for three years, one year longer than recommended, and her mascara for two years, though it should be tossed after three months. And — despite two years of daily use — she still hasn’t managed to finish her MAC Pro Longwear Paint Pots, which expire after a year and a half of use.

Da’Shante, an English teacher in Thailand who only wears makeup on special occasions, has had her CoverGirl foundation for just over two years, six months longer than doctors recommend, and can’t remember the age of her mascara.

And lastly, Miracle, a color consultant at Sephora and a body painter, wears a full face of makeup each day. Because she goes through makeup quickly and is always getting free samples at work and testing out new products, she has less incentive to keep old stuff around. Her favorite palettes, whose lifespan she tries to extend by using them sparingly, are two years old.

So why do we keep old makeup? One obvious reason is that makeup is expensive and people want to see a return on their investment, even if that return is spread out over four years. Are we all happily living in denial, risking potential eye infections to save a few dollars, or do we even realize the dangerous game we’re playing? I noticed a few themes:

Bad things rarely happen

Other than Miracle, who attributed a painful stye to old mascara, and Josh, who applied eyeliner in close proximity to jalapeños and managed to get juice in zir eye, no one could remember ever having side effects from old makeup or hearing their friends complain about it. Everyone said that if their eyes itched or their skin reacted strangely, they would assume another culprit — allergies, dried-out contacts, the weather — not their makeup, was to blame. Miracle now has a strict three-month rule for mascara, the only product she’s really cautious about, and we can only hope Josh avoids the kitchen while people are making salsa.

You won’t throw away what you can’t replace

For those who use skin products, finding the right shade can be difficult. Depending on where you live, it can become even harder. Da’Shante has held onto her foundation for just over two years. She’s unable to find a replacement or powder to set it because she lives in Thailand, where whitening creams abound but shades for people with darker skin are scarce. In the US, some regions also have limited options, as Miracle found when she moved to Seattle and could no longer find Black Radiance, a line of products designed for people of color. On a recent trip to North Carolina, she made sure to stock up. Though Fareena has had luck finding foundation that matches her darker skin, the brands with more diverse skin products also tend to be the most expensive — for $36, she is willing to be forgiving of her old MAC foundation.

Bright colors: hoarded or hated

When it comes to the chopping block, bright colors can go both ways. While Amanda and Josh are more likely to be forgiving of their fun pigmented pieces, Fareena is less apt to hold onto eccentric colors since she rarely wears them and they take up space. Products that aren’t worn as part of a daily look tend to sit around longer, and following their expiration dates can feel wasteful — Dr. Yadav told me she avoids buying fad colors for that exact reason: They’re impossible to use up before they expire. No one else seemed too concerned about the hygiene of old brightly colored makeup. Sending it to the trash generally signaled “outgrowing” neon eyeshadow and blue eyeliner.

Reviving makeup isn’t always worth the work

For the truly money-conscious, reviving makeup involves finding ways to bring unusable products back to life. Josh, a self-declared “drag on a dime sort of queen,” will Google and YouTube ways to save makeup, only tossing products when they become so dried out or cracked they are unsalvageable. Before Miracle took a professional interest in makeup, she also tried to stretch her investments by reviving old liquid eyeliners using water.

Meanwhile, my other interviewees never bother reviving makeup — not for hygiene reasons, but because it feels like more effort than it’s worth. They’ll wipe away a crusted piece or lightly shake a container when liquids separate, but they’d rather replace it with something that will stay on their face better and take less hassle to apply.

What does it actually take to toss?

With the exception of Miracle and her mascara, everyone had the same thing to say about old makeup: “If it works, looks good, and is usable, I’m willing to put it on my face.” The amount of forgiveness for separated liquids, cracked palettes, and clumpy mascara varied from person to person, but everyone was flexible about most expiration dates if their makeup still functioned as makeup. And there was always one product they were willing to ignore all the rules for. Just because you know something is wrong doesn’t mean you want to make it right, especially when it comes to your favorite $30 lipstick.