Organizing Your Makeup & Skincare Products

Part 1: How I took control of the chaos and went one step beyond with a product detox

Your makeup and skincare products have managed to decorate your bathroom sink and vanity like a new home decor trend.  You’re a grown up now and it’s time to deal, so you spend your Sunday afternoon organizing and putting everything away.  It looks beautiful when you’re done and you’re beaming with pride. Then the week happens.  Sometime between waking up late Monday for work and getting ready in a panic for your Friday night plans, hurricane Sephora managed to plop a new lipstick and face wash into the mix.  And you’re back where you started from.

Sometimes organizing just isn’t enough.  While it leaves a fleeting gratification, we often find ourselves in the same place we started after a few days or a few weeks.  We’ve only scratched the surface but haven’t really dealt with the problem.  And the problem, though hard to admit is ourselves: how we’ve bought into the idea of wanting more than we actually need.  We need the next and greatest thing though we haven’t gotten rid of (or even used up) the old.  I’m guilty as charged. I fall for the latest beauty campaign just like my fellow beauty insider next to me in line.  While it sounds frightening, purging is the first step to the solution.  It creates a clean slate, can frame your thought process and prevent product overload in the future.

Here are the steps I took to take back control.

Look out for Part 2 of this piece that will cover my action plan for making this a longterm success moving forward.

1. Identify the problem

Given the state of my vanity after repeated organizational attempts, the problem was clear: PRODUCT OVERLOAD.  The solution wasn’t going to be as easy as putting things away.  I needed to change my approach to buying beauty products.  No amount of bins and stackable trays were going to help if I didn’t downsize. It would just continue to grow, and I’d continue to waste Sunday’s getting “organized.”  I knew I would feel better after tackling it.


What about your products is stressing you out?  Do you want to save money?  Do you have too many products and not enough face to use them on?  Are you overwhelmed in the mornings when you can’t find a product you need?  Do you have barely used, dried out lipsticks and clumpy mascaras?  Identify what is not working for you and why you want to detox.

2. Set some time aside and start sorting through products

If you love makeup as much as I do, this process may have an emotional toll so music is a necessity to keep those spirits high.  My music of choice was Florence & The Machine’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful album and some Leon Bridges.  I also motivated myself with some key mantras.  “These products don’t have any significant power.  Less will be better.  Would I even buy this again?”  Though it sounds a bit cheesy, it does help.

I suggest you start with items that are in drawers or cabinets.  Most likely, these items are less often used so will be faster to sort through.  Clearing these items out first will also create space for things still left out on countertops.

Set up categories for the items you’re getting rid of.  If you can identify quickly why you should or shouldn’t keep something, you’re more likely to stay on track.  I sorted items into the following piles:

This is what I cleared out just from my vanity, not including the expired items I found in my bathroom!
This is what I cleared out just from my vanity, not including the expired items I found in my bathroom!
  • Expired
    Everything expires and it’s important to know when and what to look out for to prevent unwanted skin reactions.  While I was disappointed to throw out some of the expired products I uncovered, many of them had expired because I either didn’t like them or preferred another product.  There were a few pricier items that had expired because I wanted to reserve them for as long as I could.  This is an ill advised strategy.   I had an expensive Decleor face balm that I was hoarding because of the price tag but it was clearly past its prime.   The lesson here is to use up the expensive products within their PAO so you get their full benefits.  (A full breakdown for determining when a product has gone bad is at the end of this post along with a handy chart and what the heck PAO stands for.)
  • Almost used up
    I have a bad habit of keeping products that barely have anything left.  To make it easier for me to part ways, I’ve created a list with the names of these products for future rotation.  I obviously like them which is why I’m keeping around their ghosts, but an electronic list saves so much space rather than keeping empty packages.  I’m a fan of the free app Wunderlist for all my list making needs.
  • Never Use
    Like clothes, get rid of anything you haven’t touched in 12 months (if it hasn’t expired already).  This is being generous given the lifespan of most products.  That means you’ve had the opportunity to use it in each season, but haven’t.  Chances are you won’t reach for it again.  It’s ok if you’ve spent money on something and it didn’t work out.  Maybe you’ve purchased something that was trendy you won’t ever use or a product that isn’t suitable for your skin type.  Have a solution to prevent this in the future like sampling before purchasing and keeping receipts for returns.  If some of these items are still within their expiration date and can be sanitized, consider gifting one to a friend.
  • To Gift
    Any items that don’t suit you or that you never use can go in this pile.  If they are in good condition and you have a friend that might like it, there is no harm in offering it up.  It’s hard to gift certain items like eyeliners, mascaras, lip glosses etc. when there’s no real way to sanitize them.  But items that don’t come in direct contact with your eyes or lips and are in a pump or tube can be safely gifted.  I have many happy nieces who benefit from this category regularly.
  • Don’t Like
    There were a few items that I had to admit I just never liked.  These were items not suitable for gifting, so out they went.
  • Unwanted Samples
    Be realistic about what you want to use and get rid of the rest to save space.
  • Exceptions
    I had some items that were technically past their PAO periods that I didn’t want to part with.  Some were eyeshadows which I use for special occasions so I thought the risk of contamination pretty low.  Also there was a full coverage concealer I use only periodically and a face mask that was just over its PAO period by a few weeks.
  • Not Sure?
    When you’re not sure if a product is expired or if you want to keep it, just put it to the side for a few days.  For me, this was 2 blushes, 1 face powder and a setting spray.  After waiting a week, I decided to get rid of them because they weren’t items I had touched in over a year.

3. Deal with separation anxiety

If you’re having trouble letting go, keep the items you’ve sorted around in a sealed box or bag for a short period of time.  If you don’t find a reason to break into them after that time is up, just let them go.  I kept items in bags for a week to make sure I didn’t change my mind about keeping anything.  And guess what? I didn’t have a change of heart.

4. Have fun organizing

Once you go through the sorting and purging phase, you’ll find the actual organizing will be much easier.  When you have only what you truly like and use, you’ll instinctively know where to store what and how.  You can make your makeup work for you instead of the other way around.


I couldn’t believe how much space I had opened up within the drawers of my vanity.  With the extra space, I was able to clear more items from the countertop and even add a pretty vase of flowers.  There are many articles and blog posts online about creative ways to organize makeup. The truth is that when you have less you can demystify the whole process.  For me, I decided to group items by category so put all my concealers together, eyeshadows together, etc.  This way I’ll be inclined to rotate through my options and get more use out of forgotten products.


As you can see from the before and after photos of my vanity, I was in desperate need of this detox.  Buying more storage would have been an easy solution, but would have only compounded the stress that owning more brings.  I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself but just getting more enjoyment and value out of what I decided to keep.  I no longer have to reach past objects that remind me of my weaknesses as a consumer.  I’m always going to love buying makeup and skincare, but now I’m going to own it going forward and get my money’s worth.

Part 2 of this piece outlines my action plan for preventing product overload in the future.

Tips for identifying expired products

It’s painful throwing out a product you’ve spent money on…especially a high end product.  But that product could be causing your skin more harm than good if it’s past its prime.  An old mascara for instance can be a breeding ground for bacteria and can potentially cause eye infections.  A face cream or serum gone bad can cause an unwanted skin reaction.  If you have sensitive or blemish prone skin like me, it’s just not worth the risk.  Having to throw old products away might even encourage you to buy less in the future knowing how much you can actually go through before it expires.

So how do you know when a product has expired?

The FDA doesn’t regulate the shelf life of cosmetics.  It only mandates expiration dates for over-the-counter drugs such as sunscreens and acne medications.  So look for an expiration date on products first.  If there is none, then you can look for a PAO (Period After Opening) symbol.  You’ll find these symbols on many brands sold both in the US and abroad as the EU mandates this on packaging.  It is an indication of how long the product is safe to use after opening.  The PAO appears as an open jar with a number and an “M” indicating how many months it is good for.


If there is no PAO or expiration date, it can be a bit tricky.  There is a lot of varied information out there about when products go bad.  You can use this information as a baseline, but you should also be aware of changes in the formulation of your products.  Has the color, smell or texture changed?  Has that liquid foundation separated?  Has that lipstick dried out?  Is that mascara clumpy or smelly?  These are all signs they may have gone bad.  Paula’s Choice has some great tips to follow on their website if you want to read about this in further detail.

After doing my own research and reading PAO dates on my products, I’ve compiled some basic information below.  It’s up to you to be as conservative or lax as you want.  Just be aware of the potential for bacteria growth, unwanted side effects and diminished returns.  As a general rule, water based products will spoil faster because they are a perfect environment for bacteria to grow.  Powder based products last much longer.  Be especially vigilant with organic products or those with natural preservatives.  These are not as strong as synthetic preservatives and tend to spoil faster.

Product Type Good For Notes
Body Lotions 2-3 years
Cleansers 1 year
Eyeshadow (cream based) 6 months
Foundation/Concealer 6-12 months
Lip Balms 1 year
Lipliner/Eyeliner 2 years These last pretty long as you can sanitize them with a sharpener revealing a new surface each time you use
Lipstick 2 years This is what most of my lipsticks say. Lip glosses or more water based lipsticks are good for only 1 year.
Mascara & Liquid Eyeliner 3-6 months Check the label, but the most conservative advice is 3 months
Masks (Face) 3-6 months
Moisturizers & Serums 6-12 months Products in jars tend to degrade faster since the ingredients are exposed to air while products in pumps last longer
Powders (Face & Eyes) 2-3 years
Toners 6-12 months