The Open Jar Symbol Explained
Some of you may have noticed a new symbol that is appearing on skin-care and makeup products. It is an open jar with a number followed by the letter "M," which refers to the Latin word "menses," which is "month" in English. The symbol is referred to as Period After Opening (PAO), and is a new system devised by the European Union's cosmetics regulatory branch. The symbol is not required for cosmetic products sold in the United States or Canada, but if a cosmetics company wishes to sell its products in countries belonging to the 25 member nations of the European Union, it is, with only a few exceptions (explained below), a mandatory labeling requirement. The purpose of this symbol is to give consumers an idea of how long the product can be safely used (or used "without causing harm") after it is opened.
Your first question (mine too) may be, How is this time period determined? Therein lies a tale about the convoluted nature of this piece of cosmetics legislation. All reputable cosmetics companies (mine included) put their products through a standard battery of stability tests before they put them on the market. These tests include exposing the product to cycles of temperature extremes, testing the effectiveness of the chosen preservative system over time, testing the product in its chosen packaging, and patch-testing it on human volunteers to ascertain irritancy or to reveal unforeseen complications. However, there is actually no official methodology for such tests. The EU has not established a system for cosmetics companies to determine a PAO date. As a result, the PAO date doesn't take into account how the consumer uses the product or how it is stored.
Ironically, those two factors are critical to prolonging or reducing a product's integrity and inherent stability. For example, let's say two women purchase the same moisturizer. It is packaged in a jar. One woman lives in a humid climate, stores her moisturizer on her bathroom counter in direct light, doesn't wash her hands before using the product, and rarely puts the cap back securely on the jar. The other woman lives in a temperate climate (or has air conditioning), stores the moisturizer in a dark cupboard or drawer, always washes her hands before applying the product, and always tightly secures the cap after each use. Given these two examples of product usage, it is understandable how one would last longer than the other. The PAO date does not take into consideration how (or how often) the product is used. As shown in the example above, consumer habits vary so dramatically that establishing a specific date after which a cosmetic product may become harmful is, at best, an educated guess, and at worst, a useless endeavor. More to the point, as consumers, how many of us document (or even remember) the date we began using a cosmetic product?
Regardless of stability, a product is exempt* from carrying a PAO date if it meets the following criteria:
- Any product packaged so there is no contact between the contained product and the external environment (e.g., sealed, pressurized products like aerosol hairspray)
- Single-use products, such as capsules
- A product incapable of causing risk or harm to the consumer
*This is the opinion of the European Union Commission; only the Courts can determine (case by case) if it is true.
After learning this, I was left wondering why the EU would authorize the PAO system. In real-world terms, it is of little use because the dates over which a product is supposedly safe to use cannot be definitively determined via scientific methods. A cosmetics company's record of stability testing is a reasonable safety measure to fall back on, but that type of controlled testing does not correlate with the different ways thousands of consumers may use a particular product. It seems the PAO program was a political compromise to get the European Union Cosmetic Directive Seventh Amendment passed. The question left unanswered is one often posed to me by my readers: Just how long after a skin-care or makeup product is opened does it remain safe and effective? Despite this, the PAO labeling system can serve as a helpful reminder of when to use or dispose of your personal-care products, assuming you keep track of when you begin using each product and take care to store it in ideal conditions. I doubt most consumers will be that vigilant, but for those who take the time to be vigilant, a product's PAO date is a decent (though imperfect) guideline.
Special thanks to David C. Steinberg, President, Steinberg & Associates Inc., and Regulatory Consultant to the Personal Care Industry in the United States, Canada, and the European Union for his contributions to this article.
Source: Paula Begoun