Knowing the shelf-life of your cosmetic product is a key to understanding how you will package, promote, store, and manage inventory, including safety stock and projecting sell-through. Short shelf lives probably mean you’ll want smaller size containers and cool storage with a small amount of safety stock. Longer shelf lives give you more flexibility. That said, many factors will influence the shelf life of your product.
The shelf life of any cosmetic product is influenced by the ingredients, packaging, storage environment, and more. It is critical to understand how long a product can sit on a shelf once purchased by customers—too short a shelf life and they will feel ripped off. If it sits too long on a shelf, you’ll see less sell-through and you risk your product growing mold or bacteria. The first step in setting realistic expectations and guidelines for customers is understanding the factors that affect shelf life.
Bacteria and Fungi – Bad for Shelf Life
The main threat to cosmetic products is the unwanted growth of bacteria and fungi. Unfortunately, these undesirables can be introduced at many stages of production and shelf time, so we’ll outline how to prevent their growth.
Before you even start filling products, make sure that every tool is clean. This means keeping the area clean, the surface clean, and the bottles you are filling clean. It’s a good idea to wipe out new bottles with an alcohol swab. We recommend using gloves, too.
Often eye-specific products or anything with an applicator that touches skin is more susceptible to unwanted growth. As soon as the applicator tip touches the skin, it picks up a great deal of bacteria which you are then reintroducing into the bottle and the rest of the product again and again. These items will either have a shorter shelf life or will need slightly more preservatives to combat the repeated introduction of bacteria. This is also true of course for any product that you dip your fingers into, like a lotion in a jar.
While the trend right now is for ‘preservative free’ products, that isn’t always a safe option. One of the biggest issues with cosmetics and preservation is the addition of water. As soon as water is added to a product, you need to preserve it. Formulate with insufficient preservatives and bacteria or fungi will start to grow. Products with clay or minerals need especially strong preservatives—you are essentially adding dirt to a product and should expect it to be a great starting ground for life. Using anything less than broad-spectrum preservatives and you risk having an unsafe product.
Even if you have carefully created an anhydrous product (without water), if it will live in a wet environment like a shower, you’ll still have to add preservatives or else educate customers to keep water away during use. Your choice of packaging may need to shift from a beautiful jar to a tube so as to help prevent water and dirty fingers from getting into the product.
Another way bacteria and fungi can appear is when preservatives are weakened. This happens with age and exposure to warmer, brighter environments. Heat breaks down many preservatives, and UV rays from sunlight can have adverse effects as well. If you are trying to keep preservatives to a bare minimum you will have to accept that shelf life may be shorter than you’d like.
Breakdown of Product
Although less serious than the growth of bacteria and fungi, the shelf life of cosmetics can decrease with emulsions since you risk separation. Many lotions or crèmes will separate out over time (especially with added heat), making them far less appealing to use and look at. There aren’t any quick and easy fixes for this to extend the shelf life of cosmetics, but rigorously testing new formulas is an important start.
Depending on the product and the packaging, some cosmetics may dry out and crack, rendering them unusable. And as hinted at previously, the color and texture may change with exposure to sunlight or even just air. Many naturally-colored products will brown in the sunlight through oxidation, or occasionally change color entirely. So if a product is being used twice a day every day you’ll want to account for the increased exposure to air when choosing your packaging, preservative, and colors.
The FDA & Cosmetic Shelf Life
If you are dealing exclusively with products classified as cosmetics, you are not legally required to add an expiration date to your labels. However, the FDA considers it your responsibility to test your goods and understand the period in which they are safe to use. It is in your interest to make sure your products hold up to every day use if you want to retain customers.
The FDA offers a few tips on handling shelf life and expiration of products. These include things like not sharing makeup, and not adding water (or worse, saliva) to dried out products. Store cosmetics out of direct sunlight and excess heat, and try to keep hands clean if you’re scooping out product with them.
4 Top Tips
This all boils down to a few key guidelines.
- Start clean and stay clean when handling cosmetics
- Use an appropriate amount of preservative and test it over time
- Store cosmetics wisely (away from heat and light)
- Give your customers a realistic shelf-life for your products
Shelf Life at Essential Wholesale & Labs
We guarantee an expiration date of 1 year from purchase. The actual shelf life of the product may be longer, but it depends on the product. Our organically preserved items will last a year but likely not much longer and should be used up by then. For products preserved with things like phenoxyethanol or other stable preservatives, you can likely get at least 18 months. That said, if you add ingredients to our bases and stock products, you’ll want to consider if they will shorten the shelf life.
In general, it is up to you how you determine the expiration date of your products, let alone whether you actually put an expiration date on your packaging (which is not legally required). Be honest with your customers–they will understand the constraints of using natural and organic ingredients. And of course, make sure to store products in a cooler environment away from direct sunlight if possible.