Colin Solves Your Problems 7: Out of date cosmetic products

Out of date cosmetic products
Can you use really old cosmetic and personal care products?

I have found a stash of shampoos, conditioners, body lotions and hand creams in a box in my cellar. They are left over from a move to this house in 1997, so are now 15 years old. The question is: are they safe to use???

Fifteen years old? I would ditch them.

The very least that will have happened is that they will have lost their appealing fragrances. Cosmetic companies typically run stability studies for three years, but as it happens I worked for a while in a pharmaceutical company where we did some five year studies on products that were very similar to cosmetics. They might well be safe enough to use if they are preserved using parabens – those things are almost invincible – but many other preservatives degrade steadily over time so there is a good chance they might be contaminated.

If you really want to put them to some kind of use there are a few things you can do with them that doesn’t involve putting them on your body. The shampoos will probably be okay to wash your car with. Don’t try and wash your dishes with them. Shampoos are quite mild and won’t shift the grease. Conditioners will work as fabric conditioners. Use about half the amount of a standard fabric conditioner. (Personally I don’t see much benefit to using fabric conditioner anyway, but obviously plenty of people do given that they sell well.) As for the lotions and the creams, well there isn’t a great deal you can do with them. If readers have any suggestions I am very happy to hear about them.

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11 thoughts on “Colin Solves Your Problems 7: Out of date cosmetic products”

  1. What about using the old shampoo for cleaning makeup brushes? If probably do a 30 second alcohol dip to disinfect, but the suds would probably serve well enough to remove makeup, dirt & the little bit of oil that may deposit on the bristles.

    As far as the lotions, creams and even perhaps the conditioners, as long as they’re not rancid, or heavily waxed based formulas, I imagine they could probably be used to condition treated/waxed leather…and maybe as shaving lotion (as in: to shave with and rinse away, not to leave on skin after)?

  2. This is so obvious, but how about donating them to a college for use in analytical chemistry practicals, to determine the amount of active ingredients? This would be real experience and make a good project. You could even TLC for active ingredients, contaminants and excipients

  3. Glad you mentioned parabens. I love buying makeup preserved with Parabens. I don’t use makeup on a daily basis so it takes time before I run out of a product. Thus, I want my makeup preserved well.

  4. Use the shampoo for washing hair brushes and combs. I sometimes use baby shampoo for washing delicate woolens, seems to work.

  5. Some interesting suggestions there, thanks everyone.

    @Jessica, cleaning make up brushes sounds like a neat idea. I would never have thought of that. I am not sure a lotion would do your leather much good though. And don’t forget that there are still some fragrance residues left over so it would affect the smell of the leather.

    @Robert, donating the stash to a college would never have occurred to me so maybe not so obvious.

    @Rae, refreshing lack of chemophobia there!

    @Judith, the shampoo should give good results for delicate woolens. Wool is after all, hair. The drawback I have found when I have tried that is that it takes ages to get the suds out. People like bubbles so shampoos are formulated to have lots of foam. But if you have the patience, why not?

  6. I saw a post on a beauty blog about someone having a(opened) lipstick that was twenty years old. I couldn’t tell if she was bragging or complaining, but I do know I’d not use it. So products with parabens (the Devil’s preservative depending who you listen to) are stable longer than those without? Is that opened or unopened Colin?


    1. It wouldn’t make any difference whether or not they were opened, but obviously once opened the products will dry out and become unusable anyway. I’d have thought a 20 year old lipstick would crystallise and become brittle and unusable?

      Actually the stability of parabens is not a good thing. I argue from time to time with my good friend Dene Godfrey who is a big defender of parabens about this. All other things being equal you don’t really want your preservatives to be very stable. This gives them the potential to build up in the environment and to become a problem to wildlife. This was the problem with DDT which is quite a safe pesticide from the point of view of actual handling. I haven’t used parabens for years, apart from a couple of cases where there were special reasons why I had to, specifically because of their potential environmental issues.

  7. My stash was all unopened in case anyone thought otherwise! I’ve thrown away the body lotions and hand creams, but will use the shampoos for brush cleaning. Good suggestion.

    I think there must be lots of people out there with unopened toiletries in their bathroom cabinets, not realising that there was a ‘sell-by’ date attached. That was news to me. I wonder why the big companies don’t print a date on their bottles, tubes, packets etc. so that customers can easily see when something is out-of-date?

  8. I always use abandoned cosmetics for cleaning the bathroom. Currently using Original Source Tea Tree and Mint conditioner to clean the loo as it was far too potent with high levels of super tingle inducing essential oils for my head.

  9. My mum has lipstick that’s 38 years old. Its still fine and she still uses it on occasion. Its the perfect red and was made by Dior. She has never found a replacement.

  10. I too don’t find that fabric conditioners do much from me, apart from impart that “fresh laundry” smell to my clothes. Mind you, I find the smell a bit overpowering although it can be nice, so I use half the amount of fabric conditioner recommended.

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