Shelf Life Guidelines for Gel, Shampoo, and Everything Else You Put on Your Strands

Why knowing when to toss will help your hair look its best

A few months ago, I used a hair curling cream, which has been standing in the back of my beauty shelf for years. I applied it right away since it was one of my favorites. But when my strands didn't do any of the things promised on the bottle: de-frizz, add shine, create curls — I realized I'd had it for four years.


Rules of Expiration

My curling cream had definitely expired. Even though products can typically be kept unopened for three years, this number decreases to about 18 months after it has been opened, says Cindy Moser of Zotos International, a parent company to hair care brands like Bain de Terre.

The shelf life of opened products is decreased by about 50 percent because they come in contact with bacteria from skin or become diluted from drops of water, adds Moser who does research and development for the company.

To get the most out of your purchase, aim for products in spray containers which last longer even after opening. "Product such as aerosols are sealed and don't run the risk of contamination or dilution so their shelf life is not shortened once opened," she says. When buying conditioners, opting for tubes instead of jars is also a good buy.

Keep in mind, even if hair care items stay unopened, they expire after three years — the industry standard. "Over time oxidation, heat and even light can diminish the full potency of natural and organic ingredients," says Pat Peterson, the executive director of research and development at Aveda. To fully take advantage of shelf life, keep products you're not using in a cool, dark place.


Toss and Forget

The best way to tell when a product is expired is by its texture and scent. Erin Anderson a celebrity hair stylist usually tosses her gels and creams six months after opening. But ultimately she judges the product by how it looks. "Creams will usually separate or curdle," she reveals. "A dark yellow color is another sign that a product is past its prime."

But even if you're not keeping track of the way every product in your bathroom cabinet originally smelled and looked, you should still be able to tell, says Moser. "Malodors are typically very different than what a product's fragrance might have smelled like — if the smell is unpleasant, such as a dirty or sour smell, it's a good indication," she adds. The good news is that expired products aren't harmful to hair, with only a small chance of scalp irritation, says Fabian Lliguen a stylist and owner of the Cocoon Hair Studio in New York City.

Regardless of irritation, many hair products (like my favorite curling cream) simply become ineffective without visible changes texture and smell adds Lliguen. For example, "a change in the way the product performs, such as less hold for a styling product or hair spray."


Label the Goods

While exact expiration dates still aren't popping up on product labels, some companies have developed systems to help you keep track. At John Paul Mitchell Systems the recommended amount of months a product should be used is printed on the hair products, says Brenda DuVal, vice president of research and development for the company. "Our period after opening symbol indicates when you should dispose of the product and replace it."

But there won't be labels on everything. Right now, the Federal Drug Administration does not require hair products to have any kind expiration labeling. Some say it may be smart, to come up with your own classification system. Anderson recommends labeling products with dates using a permanent marker that doesn't rub off in the shower. This way, you can store products that could come in handy with seasonal changes instead of cluttering your bathroom. "Someone with curly hair may need a volumizer in the winter and a leave-in conditioner during the summer," says Lliguen.

So when it comes to what's in your bathroom cabinet, use products with caution. And if you don't already do so, get in the habit of labeling — or at least remember when you bought what.


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