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Are Grooming Product Expiration Dates Real, or a Greasy Con?

Admit it, you’ve never abided by — or noticed — that ‘period after opening’ symbol. So what exactly have you been putting on your face?

I absolutely hate being wasteful, but God does it feel good to throw shit out. I’ve spent the last two years just letting my old, half-used grooming and makeup products sit around to haunt me in some false hope that I’d get around to using them. I’m currently in the midst of a cross-country move, though, so I recently went through my stash with the knowledge that some of it had to go. Fortunately, most of the products decided their fate for me, thanks to my recent discovery of the “period-after-opening” (PAO) symbol.

As it turns out, this canister-looking symbol is a type of expiration date. For example, one lotion’s symbol might say “18M,” meaning the product is guaranteed to be safe and functional for 18 months after opening. Some might only say “6M,” while others might say “2Y.” It varies entirely from brand and product. It’s only a requirement for products in the European Union to have this symbol, but tons of products in the U.S. have them, too. 

Some products, like sunscreen, are required to either have a printed expiration date on them or be guaranteed to remain effective within a three-year period following purchase. But with something like shampoo or aftershave, the concept of an expiration date is a bit more flexible. Not only is it of less consequence if your hair gel is less effective than something like a rash ointment, but cosmetic products also tend to have greater stability because they lack active ingredients that could potentially go bad. Instead, they’re defined more by their exposure to the elements (i.e., your personal germs and your humid-ass unventilated bathroom). 

If a product does have a PAO symbol on it, it’s a good indicator of when you should toss it. It’s probably perfectly fine to use for a few months or so beyond the recommended window. That said, if it’s something like a skincare item, it may not do what it’s supposed to do after the PAO timeframe, or if it’s something used on your eyes like a mascara, it might become a bacteria bomb. In a lot of ways, PAO symbols and expiration dates are a type of liability insurance for manufacturers. If you develop a rash from using an old product after the appropriate time period, the company isn’t responsible — you don’t have to care if the product is technically expired, you just have to know you can’t sue. 

For me, learning of the PAO symbol has given me the delicious freedom of tossing out the musty hair products and body lotions I probably brought with me to college my freshman year. I gave them a shot, didn’t like them enough to use them, yet kept them for triple the recommended PAO window. While I probably should have used them up or given them away while they were still good, it is truly a joy to finally just let them go now that they definitely have no purpose. 

Keep your gross old products if you want, but know that the permission to throw them in the trash is probably printed right there on the label.