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?
If you’ve got an extensive collection of skincare products, then you may already be concerned about jar packaging—and what that means for their shelf life.
Rightfully so. There are two ways that ingredients housed in jars can become degraded, and therefore affect your skin.
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.”
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.
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).
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, which has been found to actually increase the production of free radicals—exactly the opposite of what you’re looking for from an antioxidant.
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. Jars aren’t the best environment for volatile, unstable polyunsaturated oils.
How to Keep Bacteria Out of Your Skincare Products
In an ideal world, all skincare products would come in packaging with airless pumps... but that’s probably not going to happen. Like I said, people love jars. I think they find them more luxurious, even though there’s nothing luxurious about a bacterial colony!
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.
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
To avoid having your skincare products in jars “go off” too quickly, store them in a cool, dark place, away from heat and sunlight. Make sure to replace their lids promptly, and never leave the lids off.
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
Doctor Rogers RESTORE Face Cream is a sensitive skin-friendly moisturizer that soothes and hydrates with squalane, shea butter, niacinamide and Centella Asiatica extract.
LXMI Crème du Nil Pore-Refining Moisture Veil
Pyunkang Yul Moisture Cream
Created by Seoul’s Pyunkang Oriental Medicine Clinic for sensitive and acne-prone skin types, Pyunkang Yul Moisture Cream is made with anti-inflammatory Coptis extract, jojoba oil and shea butter.
Egyptian Magic All Purpose Skin Cream
Technically, Egyptian Magic All Purpose Skin Cream is an oil-based balm, not a cream. This multitasking product seals in moisture with olive oil, beeswax and honey.
Versed Zero-G Smoothing Eye Cream
Versed Zero-G Smoothing Eye Cream has a pudding-like texture, thanks to glycerin, fatty alcohol, olive oil, capric triglycerides and shea butter. It’s spiked with peptides to help diminish crow’s feet.
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 was one of the first brands to reject jars. “Our packaging includes multi-layer tubes, opaque bottles, UV-protected containers and air-restrictive openings to make sure our complex formulas stay as potent and effective as possible!” reads one of their posts on Instagram. One of the best products in the line is the C15 Super Booster, with 15% L-ascorbic acid to target wrinkles, dark spots and dullness.
Allies of Skin
All the serums from Allies of Skin come in high-quality glass bottles with airless pumps. You can’t go wrong with the Prebiotics & Niacinamide Pore Refining Booster, which is formulated with 10% niacinamide to lighten discolourations, minimize pores and improve your skin’s ability to retain moisture.
The Inkey List
The Inkey List packages everything in recyclable plastic, with its moisturizers coming in either tubes or jars with airless push-down pumps. My pick is the Vitamin B, C and E Moisturizer, which has niacinamide and a stabilized form of vitamin C in a base of glycerin, fatty alcohol and fractionated coconut oil.
Of course, we’re all familiar with The Ordinary and its ubiquitous lineup of glass bottles. The only creamy products in the range come in tubes. Despite its crazy-low price, Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA is one of my favourite moisturizer formulations. It’s full of amino acids, fatty acids, ceramides and hyaluronic acid to mimic the compounds naturally present in our skin.
Of all the clean beauty brands out there, Indie Lee has some of the best packaging. None of the facial skincare products come in jars—they’re all in airless pump bottles made of glass, like the Active Oil-Free Moisturizer. It’s a creamy, medium-weight lotion comprised of triglycerides, fatty alcohol, lethicin and glycerin. You’d never guess that it’s oil-free.
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.
- Coleman, Claire. (2009, May 10). Beware the Bugs! Daily Mail.
- Rowan University. (2004, November 3). What’s On Your Face? Rowan Today.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.