We know we’re supposed to throw out our makeup and skin care products once they’re past their shelf life, even if we don’t always adhere to that rule (guilty as charged right here). In fact, experts have warned that using a cosmetic product for too long can lead to allergic reactions and increased risk of bacterial infections.
But does the same go for fragrance?
In my latest bout of spring cleaning, I discovered a couple of bottles of perfume that I’m pretty sure I received as gifts in college – which means I’d had them for at least eight years. When I sprayed them into the air, I was pleasantly surprised to find they still smelled quite nice.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel like I might be committing some sort of fragrance world sin. To address these concerns and get some answers, I turned to perfume professionals.
Below, fragrance experts break down whether perfume actually goes bad, how to detect if it has, what to do with it, and more.
Does perfume go bad?
“Yes, perfume can ‘go bad,’” says perfumer and founder of Eat. Sweat. Undress Alexia P. Hammonds. “Depending on certain variables like the bottle, ingredient quality, light exposure and where it’s stored, perfume can ‘go bad’ anywhere between one to 10 years.”
She noted that over time, perfume tends to undergo a process called oxidation, a chemical reaction that takes place when the substance is exposed to oxygen or other oxidising agents.
“There are three main reasons why perfume goes bad: light, heat and air, specifically oxygen,” says Sarah McCartney, perfumer and co-author of The Perfume Companion: The Definitive Guide to Choosing Your Next Scent. “If you don’t open a perfume – and the bottle is sealed perfectly – then it can last for decades. I’ve opened a 100-year-old bottle of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, and it was magnificent, absolutely perfect. It had an airtight glass stopper and had been kept in a warehouse in the dark.”
She noted that the more oxygen there is in a bottle, the faster it can deteriorate. So if you’ve used up more than half of a bottle, don’t try to save it for special occasions – just use it up.
How long does it take to go bad?
“Perfume can lose its potency and sophistication of fragrance notes, but some perfumes can last for several years,” says Terry Carter, chief perfumer at Travertine Spa, Inc. “It is recommended that perfumes are used within two to three years, depending on the ingredient composition.”
Fragrances that are formulated with more natural ingredients have a shorter shelf life.
“These days most fragrances are formulated with synthetics which means that they are ‘man made’ or made in the lab from ‘aroma chemicals’ which try to duplicate natural ingredients,” says Sue Phillips, founder of Scenterprises. “Therefore, because they are mostly not made from natural ingredients, they have a longer shelf life and don’t change.”
Certain scents might be more or less likely to last longer, as well.
“What I really notice is that fragrances with a lot of citruses turn faster,” says Sebastian Jara aka The Perfume Guy. “If you ever have fruits or vegetables in your house in a bowl or something and they gone bad, imagine how they smell. That’s what I pick up.”
Fragrances that are in tightly sealed spray containers also stand a better chance than the ones in bottles you pour and therefore expose to more air – though it can depend on how often the bottle is opened.
“I believe more than it being opened or not, it depends more on how perfume is stored and the weather conditions,” notes Rajiv Sheth, master perfumer, founder and creative at All Good Scents.
Indeed, fragrances are best stored in dark, dry and cool places, so if you want your perfume to last longer, put it in a dark closet or other location that offers those three conditions. Do not keep your perfume in a humid environment like the bathroom or a sun-soaked area like the windowsill.
Can you still wear old perfume?
When it comes to wearing older perfumes that may have gone bad, opinions are mixed.
“There is no harm in spaying a turned perfume on your body, except for the fact it will not have the desirable olfactory impact and can colour your clothes,” Sheth says.
Even if it doesn’t have its original “olfactory impact,” the scent of an older perfume still might appeal. Jara explains that the top notes – the first impression notes of a scent – are more likely to be off in a fragrance that has gone bad, but that the base and heart (or aka middle) notes will likely be what you remember.
“I buy a lot of vintage perfumes and when I know it has a lot of citruses, I know i’m gonna deal with the bad top notes, but that doesn’t mean I have to throw it away,” he says.
“In most cases, the odd or vinegar-like smell is in the top notes and will disappear in a few minutes,” echoes Sheth. “Very few perfumes will actually go bad overall. This can mostly happen if kept for several years and/or stored in warm or hot places.”
Perfumes typically don’t have expiration dates, so you have to go with instinct and consider factors like when a bottle was first opened, how it was stored and what ingredients it contains.
“I wouldn’t risk using vintage perfume on my skin even if it smells perfect,” McCartney said. “Some materials – natural and synthetic – have been found to cause skin irritation and their use has been restricted. Some, including natural fig absolute, have been banned. Citrus essential oils contain natural molecules which can oxidise into other materials which are more sensitising, so ‘off’ perfumes have a higher risk of causing a rash. It’s best not to spray them on skin.”
She notes that she might consider spritzing vintage perfume onto her clothes, however. Carter advises using “good and reasonable” judgment before spraying a fragrance you think may have gone bad directly onto your skin.
“Make sure the perfume smells as it previously did,” he says. “One can perform a patch test to see if skin irritation occurs.”
For people with fragrance sensitivity, certain scents can also trigger headaches and breathing problems, so be considerate of others you might be around.
How can you tell if your perfume has gone bad?
Perfume that has gone bad will typically change colour, getting darker due to factors like light exposure.
“If the fragrance initially is a lovely golden hue and after a while you notice that it gets darker and more ‘rum’-like, that is a good inkling that the fragrance has deteriorated and should not be worn,” Phillips says.
If you aren’t sure on the colour front, test the aroma by spraying the perfume on a paper card or on fabric – ideally not your favourite clothes or anything light coloured. With older perfume, the scent can get stronger, but the aroma loses its freshness and takes on a stale quality.
“I am often given old bottles of fragrance to add to my scent library, and I’ll always try them on card before deciding whether to keep them or not,” McCartney says. “It can be just the fragrance in the pump tube which has gone off, so it’s worth spraying a few times until the tube is completely clear, to see if the remaining fragrance is still good.”
Hammonds advises also taking the type of bottle into consideration.
“For perfume in glass bottles, if you notice a change in colour or chemical makeup (separation or floating particles), trash it!” she says. “If your fragrance is in an aluminium bottle – which extends the shelf life in most cases as UV rays cannot penetrate and alter the chemical makeup – then spray it and use your best judgment.”
And all technical guidelines aside, you shouldn’t keep a bottle of perfume if you find the smell to be unpleasant. If it’s totally intolerable, find an ethical way to dispose of the fragrance. Never pour perfume down the drain.
“I might use it for room fragrance if it’s on the turn but not terrible,” McCartney says. “But it’s best not to wear it.”