Are Products in Jar Packaging Bad for Your Skin? What to Consider Before You Buy

There are two potential problems.
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They look great on your countertop. And they feel so luxurious to scoop out. 

But are products packaged in jars actually doing your skin any favours?

If you're into skincare, you might already be concerned about jars. And rightfully so.

There are two potential problems with this type of packaging:

  • Oxidation of the ingredients
  • Bacterial contamination

Let's tackle oxidation first!

How Jars Can Lead to Faster Oxidation

This jar packaging could make your skincare ingredients oxidize faster.

Jars encourage faster oxidation because they expose the formula to air and light with every use. 

Okay, but what is oxidation, anyway?

In layman's terms, oxidation simply means "go rancid."

From a chemistry point of view, oxidation refers to the process in which a compound loses electrons. 

This can diminish an ingredient's potency—or even change it into something else! 

At best, a product that has oxidized will simply be less effective. But the worst case scenario is that it may actually be bad for your skin. 

For example, applying oxidized L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C) can cause blackheads, which are oxidized sebum. 

Rancid oils can also do this, and what's worse, they can also accelerate the release of free radicals onto your skin. Free radicals are reactive molecular fragments that cause damage to DNA, proteins and other parts of cells. In other words, they age you!

How to Prevent Oxidation of Ingredients

Choose your ingredients carefully to minimize the risk of oxidation.

There are two things you can do to minimize the risk of oxidation.

Choose stable ingredients: How quickly a product is likely to oxidize/go rancid depends on the stability of its ingredients.

Some of the most fragile ingredients include:

  • Vitamin C
  • Retinol
  • Green tea
  • Polyunsaturated oils (PUFAs)

As a general rule, I would suggest NOT purchasing these in jar packaging. (Well, PUFAs are so unstable and prone to spontaneous oxidation that I'd avoid them full stop. Even if the formula includes an antioxidant like vitamin E, it won't be protective for very long, because it has a much shorter half-life.)

However, for less "active" products, made with more stable ingredients (such as saturated or monounsaturated oils), jar packaging shouldn't be a problem. For more on how I check skincare ingredients, see this tutorial.

Some good, stable jar products include:

(The Kiehl's Pure Vitality Skin Renewing Cream in the yellow jar is discontinued, sadly!)

Buy protective packaging: If you do want to use a fragile active ingredient like vitamin C or retinol, then you should definitely avoid jars.

Instead, buy products that come in protective dark bottles, ideally with airless pumps. This should give you about three to six months before the ingredients start to degrade.

(Not all active ingredients have such a short shelf life, mind you. The Ordinary's Retinoids and Retinols in Squalane, reviewed here, are water-free and will last 12 months. Hylamide C25 Stabilized Vitamin C Booster is similarly stable.)

You can also transfer products into airless packaging yourself (such as these). Just keep in mind that formulas with a thicker consistency might clog the pump!

How Jars Can Lead to Bacterial Contamination

Dipping your fingers into a jar can contaminate it with bacteria.

We've all done it—after all, moisturizer textures can be so luscious and tempting!—but it's not really a good idea to stick your fingers into a jar.

Doing so can contaminate the formula with bacteria that is invisible to the naked eye. 

Yes, even if you've just washed your hands (one in three people carry the staph virus on their skin!), and even if the formula contains preservatives (which may not be strong enough to overcome a colonization).

As you can probably guess, bacterial contamination can be a trigger for acne, irritation and infection. If you're prone to atopic dermatitis/eczema, you should be especially careful, as staph is the most common bacterial trigger.

Bacteria can also change the pH of the formula, potentially rendering it less stable and less effective.

How to Prevent Bacterial Contamination

If you purchase skincare products in jars, use a clean spatula to apply them.

The solution is simple. If you can't buy a product in an airless pump (or transfer it into one yourself), use a spatula instead of your fingers.

These days, many moisturizers in jars come with an applicator, whether it's a basic plastic spatula or a fancier copper roll-on like LXMI's, above. 

If your product didn't come with one, you can also buy cosmetic spatulas in bulk here.

Keep your spatulas in a handy spot, like in a Ziploc bag or shot glass next to where you keep the cream. Remember to disinfect with soap and water or rubbing alcohol after each use.

All of this is especially important if you're using natural products, which tend to use fewer preservatives. But make sure there's at least something in there to preserve it! Anything that contains water (which is most moisturizing creams) should NOT be "preservative-free."

Conclusion

Before you purchase skincare in a jar, make sure it has stable ingredients—and be prepared to use a spatula.

To sum up, jar packaging isn't always "bad."

If it's just a basic, bland moisturizer, you don't have too much to worry about—as long as it has stable ingredients and a preservative system, and you're not dipping your fingers into the jar.

However, if you're splurging on an anti-aging product that's loaded with antioxidants and other fragile ingredients, I would avoid jars and look for airless protective packaging instead.

(Ironically, most products like this STILL come in jars, because of the perception of luxury. Silicones are ubiquitous for the same reason, since they create a "desirable" texture. It's frustrating!)

Either way, no matter which ingredients and packaging you choose, don't hang onto your products forever. 

Any creams older than one year should probably be tossed—and your most active products, like vitamin C and retinol, should be used up even faster!

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Do you avoid jar packaging? Why or why not?

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