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 • Skincare  • Skincare Guides  • Does Retinol *Actually* Expire? (And How Do You Know?)
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Does Retinol *Actually* Expire? (And How Do You Know?)

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Main Image – Liubov Levytska

In the quest for youthful, radiant skin, few ingredients have achieved the cult status of retinol.

Now a *firm* fave in the realm of beauty products, this vitamin A derivative has garnered a reputation for its remarkable ability to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, combat acne, and rejuvenate our skin’s natural glow.

But amidst the popularity of this powerful potion lies a burning question: Does retinol expire and, if so, how can we discern its age-defying prowess from its twilight years?

Unlike fine wine, unfortunately, retinol does not improve with age. In fact, it can *actually* lose its effectiveness over time (and can leave us feeling like we’ve been shortchanged on its extraordinary benefits).

As we embark on this investigative journey, it’s *essential* to dispel any misconceptions about retinol’s potency, so Live That Glow HQ spoke with nurse practitioner, aesthetic injector and the founder of Nu Glow Aesthetics, Deidre ‘Dee’ Albanese, to get the lowdown on all things retinol and how to get the best out of your products.

So, let’s get into it!


does retinol expire skincare serums acid active ingredients

Marina Kaiser/Adobe


Does retinol expire?

Simply put – Yes, retinol does expire, just not in the way you think. 

It all comes down to the legal way brands are required to describe a product’s shelf life. 

The ingredient retinol itself breaks down over time (by oxidising), but doesn’t technically “expire” in a legal sense.  It’s only when a brand includes retinol in a product that they are required to put an expiry date on the packaging.

Either way though, your retinol definitely won’t last forever.

Dee tells us that “Retinol creams typically have a shelf life of 2 – 3 years, and retinol serums will expire after 12 months.”

It all depends on the product’s formulation though. Retinol-containing creams can break down much quicker, sometimes in as little as 6 months. Meanwhile, retinol serums- typically much less complex than creams and lotions- can last as long as 12-18 months, depending on their formulation.

After this period, retinol products may become much less effective.  Using older beauty products which have been opened for too long also carries a risk of bacterial infection.  Literally everything we want to avoid in our skincare routine!


does retinol expire skincare serums

Image – Liubov Levytska/Adobe


What is retinol?

Retinol has gained its name as somewhat of a skincare superhero over the last decade, with *tonnes* of brands using it in their products – from professional derms to high street companies.

But what *exactly* is retinol?

This magical ingredient is part of the vitamin A family and works wonders to promote cell turnover, revealing a youthful complexion that’ll leave you looking fresh and fab.

Cleveland Clinic says that “retinol is a form of vitamin A with many uses in skin care. It’s used to treat acne and has anti-aging effects. You can buy retinol over the counter (without a prescription) or visit your healthcare provider to discuss how retinol might best fit into your skincare routine.”

You can say goodbye (to a certain extent, this isn’t a miracle product) to fine lines and hello to a radiant visage!


Can I use retinol after the expiry date?

Like all skincare and makeup products, we really don’t advise using retinol after its expiry date, and Dee agrees. She tells us that she “wouldn’t recommend using expired retinol. Not only will the product likely be less potent, but it may also cause skin irritation and breakouts.”

So, in short, not only will expired retinol have no benefits for your skin, but using any products that have been open too long, allowing bacteria to breed, could be harmful.

As annoying as it can be to have product left in the bottle that you can’t use, suck it up and Throw. It. Away – your skin will thank you for it!


does retinol expire skincare serums creams sunscreen

Image – Anna Schlosser/Adobe


How do I tell if my retinol has expired?

The main signs to look for to work out whether your retinol has expired are a darkening of colour, loss of effectiveness of the product and deterioration like changes to its smell of consistency.

You can also look at your product’s packaging for an idea of its shelf life, although the experts agree the figures printed on packaging can be unreliable.

If you do look to your packaging for a guideline though, there are some rules you’ll need to follow. “The date will be printed on the box it comes in or on the tube itself. Start the clock on expiration when the product is made, not when it is opened,” says Dee.

There should be a PAO symbol on the packaging (an open jar symbol), which identifies the useful lifetime of a cosmetic product after its package has been opened for the first time.

Unfortunately, some brands opt for an enigmatic batch code instead, leaving consumers puzzled like detectives in search of clues. So, “If you can’t find an expiration date, you might be able to tell by the smell,” advises Dee.

“Retinol does not have much of a scent when it’s within its expiration time, but once it expires it can take on a chemical-like smell.”

As a general rule with most skincare products, if the scent changes this can be a sign of expired product.

You should also consider the texture – has it turned grainy, lumpy, or discoloured? If so, it might be high time to retire your retinol. Additionally, “Retinol can also start to change colour from clear or white to yellow or brown as it gets older and is exposed to the elements,” says Dee.

“Another sign your retinol has gone bad is that your skin may stop responding to the product,” meaning you’re just wasting precious time on a product that won’t work.

To maximise the product’s shelf life, you should store it away from direct sunlight, moisture and extreme temperatures, as excessive exposure can speed up its expiration. A cool, dark drawer or cabinet can act as the ideal place to preserve its potency.


does retinol expire skincare serums creams

Image – IKvyatkovskaya/Adobe


What should I do with expired retinol?

In short- and as we’ve already mentioned- throw any expired retinol away.

Most older beauty products have the potential to become a breeding ground for bacterial growth and can cause adverse reactions.

Always look out for signs that your retinol products have expired and make sure to throw them away once they’ve passed this date.


When do my other skincare products expire?

Sadly, most products will expire – sigh – and their life span will be dependent on their ingredients and formulation.  Ingredients like ascorbic acid (a form of vitamin C) can break down in as little as 3 to 6 months, while other products may last longer that 6 months to a year.

As a general rule though you’ll probably want to throw products away once you see signs of deterioration like changes in smell, colour and texture.

And while it’s not always completely reliable, if you still want an idea of when your fave face mask, bottle of retinol, glycolic or hyaluronic acid expires, look for the number of months shown on the back of the packaging (or the batch number).

Moisturisers may last more than a year after opening, and sunscreen should only ever be used before its expiration date. This one is *really* important, if you wear expired sunscreen you could be surprised with some nasty burns because the product will have lost some of its effectiveness.

In terms of makeup, water-based foundations and concealers will last up to 1 year, whereas oil-based concealers can last up to 18 months as oil is a natural preservative.

There are a few tips and tricks you can use to help your product last longer, such as storing it out of direct sunlight in a cool, dark place.  Know that storage conditions here are a big deal and will definitely improve the shelf life of your retinol serum.

Limiting the amount of time they are open will help them last longer – especially products like natural clay masks that dry out really quickly – so pop the lid back on while you’re applying the product.

You’ll want to prevent bacteria from getting *anywhere* near your products by using a spatula rather than your fingers, this will help your product to last longer as well as prevent any dreaded infections.  If you are going to use your fingers, always make sure to have clean hands when using skin care products.

If products start to change in colour, smell or texture, throw them out immediately.

You heard us!


does retinol expire skincare serums creams sunscreen

Image – Lea/Adobe


The takeaway

Retinol, like most things in life, is *not* immune to the effects of time but understanding the signs of expiration will prevent you from using products that are past their best.

The good news is that adopting a few protective measures can help you to savour the transformative powers of retinol, empowering you with skin that defies the clock!

Keep an eye on the smelltexture and colour of your products because these are all tell-tale-signs and, if you think something looks a *little* strange, throw it away because there’s a good chance it’s past its prime – it’s not worth the risk!

As a rule of thumb, ingredients like vitamin C can last as little as three months, while some active ingredients can maintain their effectiveness for 2 years or more. Got some older products lying around that you’re thinking of using? Throw. Them. Out!


Meet the expert

Deidre ‘Dee’ Albanese is a nurse practitioner and aesthetic injector who founded Nu Glow Aesthetics in 2019. With her conservative approach to injectables, Deidre has a passion for making people look and feel like the best version of themselves.


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Senior Beauty Editor

Laura Kemp started her journalism career as a news reporter for one of the largest newspaper groups in Europe before moving into features and editorial writing. Combining her love of hard-hitting journalism with her passion for beauty, she’s now Senior Beauty Editor at Live That Glow. When she’s not writing, researching, or interviewing her favourite experts, you’ll find Laura practicing her downward dog or drifting on her paddleboard.

Expertise: Hair care, nails
Education: University of Salford

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