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Is Jar Packaging Bad for Skincare Products—and Therefore Your Skin? Here Are the Risks, and What You Can Do

There are two potential problems.
Skincare jar packaging

They look great on your vanity countertop. Their contents feel satisfying to scoop out. And the textures are so luscious, they even have their own Instagram hashtag (#TextureTuesday) with half a million posts and counting.

I’m talking about skincare products that come in jar packaging. Clearly, people love them. But are they actually safe to use? And are they doing your skin any favours?

In this tutorial, you will learn the two biggest issues with jar packaging, how they can affect your skin, and what you can do (whether you still want to use jars or not).

Is Jar Packaging Bad?

1. Products Can Become Contaminated with Bacteria

We’ve all done it, but it’s not really a good idea to stick your fingers into a jar. Doing so can contaminate the product with harmful bacteria—which can multiply and destabilize the formula.

“Most of us carry bacteria, such as staphylococcus aureus, on our skin,” says Dr. Susan Mayou. “Most of the time it does us no harm at all. But introducing it to your face cream by putting your fingers in the jar can transform your cream into a culture medium, allowing these bacteria to reproduce.”[1]

One team of researchers conducted a study of store “tester” products to see what was growing inside. Not only did they find staph, strep and E. coli bacteria, but 100% of products were contaminated on the stores’ busiest days.[2]

Obviously, that level of contamination is unlikely when it’s just you using your own products at home. But dipping your fingers in and out of a jar every day does increase the risk of bacterial growth—and you could be transferring some of this bacteria to your skin. 

Rashes, acne and infections are all possible results. “This sort of thing was first noticed in eczema patients who regularly apply cream to their skin," says Dr Mayou. “It became apparent that they were constantly reinfecting themselves.” 

What’s more, a bacteria-laden product can also be less effective. “The presence of bacteria in a cream can change its pH,” she explains. “Some of the active ingredients that you find in expensive cosmeceuticals will only work at a specific pH.”

2. Ingredients Can Oxidize Faster

Jars encourage ingredients to oxidize (go rancid) faster because they expose the formula to air and light with each use. At best, a product with oxidized ingredients will simply be less effective. At worst, it may actually be bad for your skin by generating aging free radicals. 

Take retinol and vitamin C, for example. They’re two of the best-known actives in skincare, but they’re also notoriously unstable. When retinol oxidizes, it not only changes colour, it also loses much of its antioxidant activity. So it won’t be as beneficial (although it should still help to protect against UV-induced collagen destruction[3]).

Vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid) also needs to be packaged in an opaque, air-tight container to protect it from light, heat and air. Once oxidized, it darkens and degrades into erythrulose,[4] which has been found to actually increase the production of free radicals[5]—exactly the opposite of what you’re looking for from an antioxidant.

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But it’s not just active ingredients that require careful packaging. You might be surprised to learn that many plant oils commonly used in skincare products are also prone to oxidation. How quickly an oil oxidizes depends on its fatty acid composition (the degree of unsaturation) and its exposure to heat and light.[6] Jars aren’t the best environment for volatile, unstable polyunsaturated oils. 

How to Keep Bacteria Out of Your Skincare Products

So, if a product that you want to use is in a jar, what can you do? One option is to transfer it into a refillable container with an airless pump. (On Amazon, you can find the same type of jars that Drunk Elephant uses, with push-down pumps.)

If that won’t work, the solution is simple. Use an applicator to dispense the product instead of your fingers. These days, many creams actually come with one, whether it’s a basic plastic spatula or a fancier spoon or wand.

Sephora Collection Face Mask Applicator

Keep your applicator in a handy spot near the jar, like in a Ziploc bag or shot glass. It’s also a good idea to disinfect it with soap and water or rubbing alcohol after each use.

How to Slow Down Oxidation in Your Skincare Products

You should also choose your formulas wisely. If you’re looking to get results from active ingredients like retinol or vitamin C, then serums—not creams in jars—are usually the best way to get them into your skin. Serum bottles don’t expose these actives to light and air like jars do, so they stay more stable and effective. (Find out more about the benefits of serums in my serum tutorial.)

Skincare that is high in polyunsaturated oils will turn rancid quickly, especially if it’s packaged in a jar. As a general rule, I avoid products that contain these oils in the first five ingredients, which typically represent about 80% of the formula. If you’re not sure if an oil is polyunsaturated, Google “[oil name] fatty acid composition” and it should come up. 

The Best Types of Skincare Products if You Prefer Jars

You don’t necessarily have to swear off all skincare products in jars. Just choose formulas that are likely to be stable, such as bland moisturizers and eye creams, or oil-based balms. Here are some of my top product picks for those who prefer jars:

Doctor Rogers RESTORE Face Cream
LXMI Creme du Nil Pore-Refining Moisture Veil
Pyunkang Yul Moisture Cream
Egyptian Magic All Purpose Skin Cream
Versed Zero-G Smoothing Eye Cream

The Best Skincare Brands That Don’t Use Jars

On the flip side, if the information here has you thinking that jar packaging isn’t worth it, I don’t blame you. Here are some brands that don’t package their formulas in jars, and my top picks from each:

Paula's Choice C15 Super Booster
Shani Darden Retinol Reform
Allies of Skin Prebiotics Niacinamide Pore Refining Booster
The Inkey List Vitamin B, C and E Moisturizer
The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors HA
Indie Lee Active Oil-Free Moisturizer

Conclusion + Further Reading

To sum up, jar packaging isn’t always “bad.” 

If it’s just a basic moisturizer, balm or eye cream, then you don’t have too much to worry about—as long as it has stable ingredients and (if water-based) a preservative system. If you can avoid dipping your fingers into the jar and use an applicator instead, even better.

However, if you’re getting into actives like retinol or vitamin C, it’s best to avoid formulations that come in jars. Products with more protective airless packaging will have a much better chance at remaining stable and effective, giving you the results that you want.

No matter which ingredients and packaging you end up choosing, don’t hang onto your products forever. Any creams older than one year should probably be tossed, and your most active products should be used up even faster, before they lose potency.

Further Reading

  1. Coleman, Claire. (2009, May 10). Beware the Bugs! Daily Mail.
  2. Rowan University. (2004, November 3). What’s On Your Face? Rowan Today.
  3. Fisher, G. J., Talwar, H. S., Lin, J. & Voorhees, J. J. (1999). Molecular mechanisms of photoaging in human skin in vivo and their prevention by all-trans retinoic acid. Photochemistry and Photobiology. 1999 Feb; 69(2): 154-7.
  4. Nemet, Ina & Monnier, Vincent M. (2011). Vitamin C Degradation Products and Pathways in the Human Lens. Journal of Biological Chemistry. 2011 Oct 28; 286(43): 37128-37136.
  5. Garone, Michael, Howard, John & Fabrikant, Jordan. (2015). A Review of Common Tanning Methods. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. 2015 Feb; 8(2): 43-47.
  6. Halvorsen, Bente Lise & Blomhoff, Rune. (2011). Determination of lipid oxidation products in vegetable oils and marine omega-3 supplements. Food & Nutrition Research. 2011; 55: 10.3402/fnr.v55i0.5792.