I can recall, almost as if it was yesterday, the awe I’d feel whenever, being over to my great-grandparents’ country house as a young child, I’d get a chance to take a glimpse at their old-school fragrance collection now and then.
Neatly tucked away in a squeaky drawer inside a French vintage meets shabby chic bedroom desk were scents, like 4711’s Echt Kölnisch Wasser and Michel Rochas’ Femme, it would take me decades to grow a genuine appreciation for.
Today, a good few of them have been discontinued and are impossible to find, even if you know how to look in the darkest corners of Etsy or eBay.
Little did I know that the alluring scents, reminiscent of a time long gone, had shape-shifted with time and lost some of their true character.
I don’t know what happened to those bottles of perfume (probably, I never will).
But I know that later on in my mid-20s, when I got into collecting perfume, I learned a valuable lesson my great grandparents had most probably learned, too: no scent lasts forever.
Fragrances: Can They Go Bad?
All fragrances—freshwater, toilet water, cologne, perfume—have a shelf life. While rules of thumb can be given for other products, each fragrance is unique. Some last for three to five years; others last for a few decades before their scent and color change so much that they go off.
And, as much as we’d like to extend the shelf life of our go-to scents, we can only postpone an ageing process as natural as that of our own bodies.
Unlike wine, which only gets better with time, perfume eventually goes off as the exposure to air and heat causes its ingredients to oxidize and the bonds between them to break down. Generally, perfume lasts longer when unopened and kept in a cool and dark place.
Perfume aging is a complex process. Without going back to high-school chemistry class, a couple of things happen to your favorite fragrance as it ages:
First, its scent changes as the top notes—comprised of the most volatile molecules in a formulation—disappear one by one, followed by the middle notes until mostly the base notes are left.
Second, the juice gets increasingly darker as the ingredients that give it its color enter into a dance with the air, exchanging oxygen and getting their chemical makeup altered as a result.
At a certain point in time, the scent and color will have changed so much that many of us would describe the fragrance as being “off,” as it’s no longer capable of delivering the sensations its nose intended it to.
The Best Places in Your Home for Keeping Perfume
The best places to store perfume in your home are cool and dark cabinets and cupboards, as well as your wardrobe. You want your perfume bottles to be away from sunlight, interior lights, and sources of heat.
For example, many underestimate the effect that air conditioners, radiator heaters, and infrared (IR) heating panels can have on the shelf life of our fragrances during fall and winter. Store yours as away from them as you can.
Keeping bottles of perfume on display, such as a shelf or a windowsill, may look instagrammable. But it shortens their shelf life and causes them to go bad faster than if they were stored in a closed and confined space. Given the price point on most of them, go for the latter.
High humidity can be detrimental to perfume. No matter what some people will try to tell you, never store scents in the bathroom and definitely don’t put them in your refrigerator unless you’re doing so in the less-humid vegetable crisper.
Whether you’ve opened and spritzed from a bottle of perfume or not will greatly affect its shelf life. Spraying perfume lets air into the bottle, and air causes its ingredients to oxidize. To max out the useful life of your fragrances, don’t open them until you plan to wear them frequently.
How to Tell If a Bottle of Perfume Is Expired
You won’t find a “best by” date on most bottles of perfume for a reason.
When it comes to their expiration date, not all fragrances are created equal: citrusy and floral scents get their notes from volatile molecules that decay faster than musky or woody-note fragrances.
The most obvious clue that a perfume may have gone bad is its age. Lighter and simpler fragrances that focus on citrusy and floral notes last for 12-18 months. Heavier and more complex aromas with musky or woody notes can last for up to 5 years.
Suppose you buy many fragrances. A helpful habit to pick up is to remember (or write down somewhere where you will) the date on which you’ve purchased each bottle in your collection. That way, you’ll know by when it’s a good idea to use each one up.
The age should serve as a reminder, but the two tell-tail signs are, without a shadow of a doubt, the smell and color of the juice.
If you suspect that a scent has gone bad, don’t rush to spritz it all over yourself, as the formula may have changed in a way that irritates your skin. Spray it on a sheet of paper or the glueless end of a sticky note instead—and give it a whiff. If it smells off, it’s probably expired.
Another sign is that the juice has become darker. But keep in mind that a fragrance with a darkened juice may still be wearable.
When in doubt, do what you’d do when trying out a new cosmetics item. Spray a teeny, tiny amount on your inner wrist and let it react to your skin. In case it feels itchy, this juice is probably not something that you want to spray on your elbows and neck.