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The Makeup Breakup

How and when to kiss your beauty products goodbye

Lois Joy Johnson: The Makeup Breakup

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For mascara, heed the three-month rule.

Most beauty editors are product junkies, but this hoarding habit of mine has got to stop. Winnowing down my arsenal of makeup and skin care goods is an essential part of the job.

Lipsticks, foundation, jars of moisturizer and pots of blush — I test them and assess them, but they cannot last forever. And neither can yours. For all their gorgeous colors, pretty packaging and irresistible pricing, goodies that hang around too long are ultimately potential sources of danger. So here are my five best tips on what to toss, keep or renew — and when to do so.

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1. Keep track. As soon as you open a new product, date it with a Sharpie. Although pull dates ("Best if used by …") are not legally required on cosmetics, some brands do print them as a sign of good faith. Others may show an open-jar symbol, followed by the number of months that product is likely to stay "fresh." And still others rely on their own hard-to-decipher coding system.

The stability of just about any beauty product, however, will eventually decline to the point where its ingredients are no longer safe to use. (Think possible skin reactions.) To maximize their shelf life, store beauty products in a cool, dark place; that rules out humid bathrooms as well as dressing tables exposed to sunlight or excessive heat.

2. Monitor changes in color, texture or scent. In general, a product should be replaced if it looks strange or if it starts to smell or feel different. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule, though.

  • Products used for facial-skin care — cleansers, serums and moisturizers; eye creams, liquids and oils; and creamy makeups such as foundation, concealer, blush and lipsticks — stay reliable for about a year after they are opened (and longer than that, of course, if they remain sealed). Pumps or tubes with thin nozzles are less likely to harbor bacteria than open-mouth jars, where finger-dipping poses a higher risk. To reduce the likelihood of such an infection, use disposable cotton swabs to scoop from jars, then deposit the product in question on your skin before blending it with your fingers.
  • Because bacteria cannot thrive in a dry environment, any powder — including eye shadow, powder blush or bronzer — may last as long as two to three years. Powders can, however, acquire a hard, filmy, undetectable coating; this happens when skin oils get transferred via applicators or brushes, and it makes picking up color difficult. To combat the effect, press strips of transparent tape over the powder's topmost layer, then lift them off to ease application (and renew the product's color and texture).

3. For mascara, heed the three-month rule. I know, I know — almost no one does. But they should! Thanks to its dark, moist nature, mascara readily attracts bacteria. Irritated eyes, puffy lids or even an infection can result. Never try diluting a tube of mascara that has thickened or clumped; instead, simply throw it out. If you get a sty, toss the mascara and suspend using all eye makeup until it heals.

4. Lipsticks are like lightbulbs — they can go off. Changes in smell or taste betray a breakdown in formula. Mattes may seem drier than usual, and creams may seem oilier. Lipsticks last about a year, but in order to prevent early spoilage, firmly recap them after each use.

Are your lips prone to cold sores? Discontinue and discard any lipstick, gloss or balm that may have become contaminated.

5. Perfumes can have a long shelf life. You know that duty-free bottle you've kept for five years now? It may be perfectly fine. Longer-lasting eaux de parfum include spicy orientals or intense white florals with heavy base notes of vetiver, musk, woods or patchouli. (Less resilient are citrus and green scents, as well as lighter eau de toilette or eau de cologne formulas.)

And if you can't get by without them, take steps to preserve them: Buy smaller bottles, use often, and store away from sunlight, radiators and other warm environments.

For more beauty and style tips for women age 50+, check out The Woman's Wakeup: How to Shake Up Your Looks, Life, and Love after 50, as well as AARP's new Beauty & Style special edition for tablets.

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