I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Packaging. Like most people, you’re probably quietly asking yourself what the heck that is, but packaging is everywhere around us; protecting, delivering, and advertising the products we love and buy every day. One of the most value added functions packaging provides in this day and age is shelf life. You may be thinking about food, but did you know our hair products have a shelf life too?
The great thing about food is that we can tell a lot about its condition and quality with our senses. If we’re lucky, we can smell when our milk has gone rancid, we can see when our bread has gotten moldy, and when we aren’t so lucky we feel stomach pain when we’ve eaten something that has spoiled. We even have expiration (use by) dates generated to help approximate when products are no longer good. But what happens when product spoilage doesn’t appeal to our senses?
Here are some things to consider when determining the shelf life of your hair care products and tips to preserve them as long as possible:
Expiration Dates & Average Shelf Life
• The first important thing to know is that The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) currently has no requirements for expiration dates/labeling on hair care products.
• Unopened; most products are safe for about 3 years.
• Expiration dates typically apply from the moment you open them– exposing them to water/moisture, heat, light, and oxygen.
• Sometimes expiration codes are printed by the bar code or UPC.
• Once opened, shelf life decreases by approximately 50%, to about a year and a half. This is an approximation that can be decreased further based upon how the product is used, stored, and whether or not preservatives are included.
Water: Water is probably one of the biggest contributors to product spoilage because of microorganisms. Moisture is the ideal environment for microorganisms (bacteria, mold, etc) to grow and thrive. For this reason, any product that contains water (which we Naturals love particularly when it is the first ingredient) NEEDS preservatives—otherwise that product’s shelf life will be extremely short and bacteria will grow.
The only other way to slow this process would be to refrigerate (which would give you about a week, max). There are also circumstances where manufacturers will use preservatives because of where and how a product will be used, not the actual ingredients. For example, some products could have preservatives because people tend to use them in the shower where the likelihood of water being introduced into the product is high.
Heat: Heat can cause, as well as accelerate, chemical reactions. With respect to hair products, it can also cause proteins to breakdown and emulsions (those creams we all love) to break or separate.
Light: There are some ingredients that are photosensitive, or sensitive to light. A great example of this is olive oil. Exposure to UV light (diffused and direct) rapidly accelerates the oxidation (degradation, leading to quality loss, physical changes, and often rancidity or off flavors) process and is the reason why we rarely see products like olive oil or beer packaged in clear packaging.
Additionally products like this usually always direct consumers to store in a “dark location.” It is important to note, degradation is always occurring. Think of our bodies; we’re always aging but we can introduce external variables that will accelerate the breakdown of our bodies (smoking, drinking, etc.).
Time: Perhaps not a spoilage driver per se, but time can definitely diminish the efficacy, or effectiveness, of products. A great example of this is baking soda. Over time baking soda loses its potency which will result in baked goods that don’t rise (fresh baking soda bubbles immediately when combined with warm/hot water). So if you’ve noticed a product you’ve had for a while isn’t working as well as it used to, it could be that it has lost some potency.
Tips to Extend Shelf Life and Preserve Your Products
Be sure to have clean hands and fingers (especially under and around your nails) before reaching for product. If not, you run the risk of inadvertently contaminating products with bacteria which will grow and then be applied to your hair and scalp.
If you wash your hair in the shower, be careful not to have water mix with your conditioner or shampoo. This can be difficult to avoid with products that are packaged in jars instead of bottles. Changes in chemical composition, such as the addition of water, can alter the shelf life and the efficacy of products.
For all the “kitchen chemists” out there, do your mixing in a separate container so you don’t compromise the shelf life of the entire product.
Be mindful of the packaging. As I’ve alluded to throughout the article, packaging can play a major part in extending or shortening shelf life. Particularly for products that you are likely to use in or around the shower, bottles –with pumps, caps, or small orifices—are best because they greatly reduce potential contamination by bacteria or water compared to jars.
I love a sale to stock up on my favorite products, but consider how long it takes you to use product as you decide how much you should buy. Remember that most items unopened and stored properly have a shelf life of roughly 3 years.
Preservatives are not the devil. Remember that where water is present, a preservative is necessary.
This tip may seem rather obvious but it is something even I don’t follow all of the time. Try not to open a new bottle or jar when you already have one of the same product open because as soon as it’s open, the shelf life is cut in half.