Period After Opening Symbol


Do you know what this symbol means?  Have you even noticed it before?  You will find it on most, but not all, of the personal care products in your bathroom.

In the EU it is a legal requirement that all cosmetic products carry a symbol telling the purchaser how long it will last after it has been opened.

Europe is a multinational place and so the rules mandate a symbol rather than text.  To be fair, in a straw poll I did of people who happened to come into contact with me for a few days, more than half understood the meaning of the symbol.  That is 4 did and 3 didn’t.  I stopped polling after that because it didn’t seem to be something people wanted to talk about.  It is fairly obvious when you think about it, but equally not something you probably want to think about.

Agreeing on a symbol is the easy bit of course.  How exactly do you decide how long something is going to last when it has been opened?  You will look in vain for any help on this in the official publications of the European union.

So how do the people in the business who have to implement these rules come up with a figure?  To be sure, it would be possible to come up with an experimental protocol to test it out in the lab. You could take some products and open them. You would then submit them to some kind of typical use routine, and assess how they looked. You could then come up with some kind of specification for what you regard as acceptable, and there you have you period after opening.

I suppose some of the larger companies may have done this. But although it might sound reasonable at first sight, the practical difficulties are quite large. It would involve a lot of time and effort. And given the number of assumptions you would have to make, it wouldn’t be much more than guess work. How long does the average face cream last in a bathroom for instance? Well some disappear pretty quickly, but others hang around for a considerable length of time. Indeed some, particularly medicated ones, take on the status of treasured family heirlooms passed from one generation to the next.

So most chemists simply look at their stability data and search their brain’s memory banks. Then they guess. It is an informed guess, but a guess nonetheless. And frankly, I think that is probably a better way to do it than to try and come up with an objective measure. The EU regulations only talk about safety, and most cosmetic formulations are really really harmless from the get go and are not going to get any worse as a result of use.

One consequence of the way the technical folk come up with the period after opening declaration is that there is a tendency for round numbers to be selected. So you will see 6M, 12M and 24M appearing most often. I would love to see one with an odd number – let me know if you come across one.

Incidentally, there is a get out clause for products that obviously don’t need it. So you won’t see it on single use sachets or hair sprays for example. There are a few grey areas, for example soap bars. I doubt there are too many people around who need help with the decision about whether or not they want to use a particularly old bar of soap.  Some soap manufacturers put the symbol on, others don’t.  I guess we’ll have to wait for a court case to decide the issue.  I don’t imagine that Hollywood will be fighting over the film rights to that one.

In any case, to fully benefit from this piece of legislation consumers would need to either write the date they opened a particular product on it when they do so or make a note in their diary. This might be easier now we have smart phones and the like that can be set up to give an alarm on a particular day. But even so, I imagine that people with this level of attention to detail are not common.

The EU is going through a bit of a rough patch in terms of public opinion at the moment. This isn’t a political blog, but I do wonder if regulations like this aren’t part of the problem.

If this article has whetted your appetite, you can find more about the EU’s thinking on period after opening issues here.

I also have a professional blog where I talk about these kinds of issues from a business point of view.

9 thoughts on “Period After Opening Symbol

  1. Lise

    My products also have a production date (usually on the bottom) so my customers can always see how long they’ve had the product. 🙂

  2. Jill

    The problem I envision with this “after opening” time frame is you can’t be sure if it is opened and left open, used with dirty hands, sneezed into (gross, I know, but you get my drift). For example, our sugar scrub is anhydrous and contains a preservative. It WILL be good to use, scent intact, for about a year after opening, though most customers use the 8 oz contents long before that time. IF it’s kept closed between uses, at ambient temperature and you take care not to get water into the jars and let it sit there in a hot humid environment (aka the bathroom). We have begun changing our “best used by” to a shorter time frame due to typical consumer behavior regarding their soaps, cosmetics, etc. I have actually had a few customers try to get refunds or new products sent to them years (yes, multiple) because it’s “funky” or it no longer has a strong scent. 😉 Customer education is a daily task.

  3. Kelly

    I never actually bothered looking at that. I knew what it was for but never took any notice. I just keep my products for however long I need them and then throw them out when they get a bit ugly looking. Probably not that wise of me I know, but like you say, who bothers to note down the date they opened a product?

  4. Maria

    or a question I asked many months ago, how long do cosmetics/bath products keep in an UNOPENED state? I had a stash left over from a move from USA to UK and I’d stocked up with products unavailable in the UK. I actually forgot about them, left in a dark cupboard in the cellar, but was advised to throw them away as they were at least 10 years old. Because of this, I never buy those BOGOF type of offers as you don’t know when you’re going to use it….

  5. Maya

    Well, this is good to know that some manufacturers do write how long the product will last after it is opened. Some cosmetics can last for a long time, like eye shadows or cream (when not constantly used.) I heard from somebody once that said as long as product did not change color or smell rancid, it is still good to use. What do you think about that logic?

  6. Kelly Yamauchi

    This is very informative. I’ve also noticed the symbols but I’m not informed about it. BTW, what are the harmful effects using expired cosmetic products?

  7. Ziba

    Are their health consequences from using expired cosmetics? Like your skin breaking out? Or is the problem simply that the product will no longer work as effectively as before? In any case, it is annoying having to remember when you opened the product. But as with everything else, there are apps for that 😉

  8. Colin Post author

    There are hundreds of thousands of cosmetic products out there so there may be some exceptions, but generally speaking if a product still looks and smells okay there won’t be any positive risk to using it outside its PAO limit. It may well have lost some of the top notes from the fragrance and some beneficial ingredients like vitamin E and retinol may have been broken down so they won’t work as well as intended.

  9. Sabine

    I thought the new regs stipulate that one should put the best before date on these items as well? Which rather more often than not contradicts the open jar symbol because if a product is best before say 12/2013 and the open jar sign states 12M – then what?

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