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Have you ever opened a bottle of shampoo and noticed an odd odor? Or has it turned an odd color or consistency?

Even the highest quality hair products have a shelf life. And depending on the ingredients, that shelf life can vary dramatically.

Most large companies put enough preservatives in their products to last roughly four years. These preservatives, such as methylparaben, quaternium-15, methylisothiazolinone and propylparaben, help prevent the products from becoming contaminated by mold and bacteria.

If you use preservative-free, all-natural products, remember that they will not stay fresh as long as commercial products.

The most effective all-natural preservative is a citrus extract, such as grapefruit seed, combined with antiseptic essential oils, such as chamomile, rosemary and echinacea. Antioxidants, such as Vitamin E, also are natural preservatives.

But most of these natural preservatives can only protect shampoos and conditioners from bacteria, staph, mold and fungus for 120 days, according to Tim Schaeffer, spokesman for Avalon Natural Products.

These companies constantly test the products using a challenge test. The product is baked in special ovens, with one month equivalent to one year. Each month, they inject several bacteria to test how effective the preservatives perform.

But even with preservatives, precautions should be taken to protect the product's quality. Products should never stand in direct sunlight for a prolonged period of time. Be cautious of products sitting in a window display.

If you have a choice of buying your favorite hair product in a tube or a jar, opt for the tube. Jars must be opened to dispense the product. When you dip your fingers into the product, it may be exposed to germs that can contaminate it.

For this reason, many cosmetic and hair care companies are moving toward pump dispensers. Pumps offer the advantage of measured doses while being more sanitary.

Some say the shelf life issue would be solved if shampoos and conditioners were refrigerated, or if they had expiration dates. But most products don't have sell-by dates, and most products are kept on shelves at room temperature.

Because of this, make sure you open the cap and smell the product before you buy. (CurlMart's inventory is kept small and turns over quickly, so it is always fresh.)

For products in your bathroom, regularly check the smell and the consistency. If the product has separated, it's probably time to throw it away.

Christo of Christo Fifth Avenue recommends discarding products you've had for two years or longer. The potency of some of the ingredients will be lost through regular exposure to oxygen and light, making it less effective.


The Best Ways to Maximize Shelf Life

  1. Keep products in a cool, dry, dark place away from sunlight, humidity and heat. (That means out of your bathroom.)
  2. If your product comes in a large jar, you can sterilize several smaller containers and put the cream into the smaller containers.
  3. Try not to travel with too many products. Changes in heat and humidity can change the consistency of products.

Protecting Preservative-Free Formulations

  1. Be sure your hands are sterile.
  2. Store products in dark containers or opaque packaging to keep them away from the harmful effects of sunlight.
  3. Make sure packaging is airtight. Natural products can oxidize and go rancid when exposed to air.
  4. Heat can damage natural products. Store products in a cupboard or other cool place.
  5. Because fingers can carry bacteria, avoid dipping fingers into jars and bottles. Instead, use a clean spoon, popsicle stick or other appropriate utensil. Pumps are good at dispensing more liquid-y products.
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