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What’s That Smell: Does Shampoo Go Bad?

By Amalah

Hi Amy –
I have what may seem like a silly question: does shampoo go bad? This past summer, I found a new love: ISO DailyCleanse shampoo and because Ulta was having a fabulous sale, I gobbled up a rather large bottle of it and then used the ISO shampoo as my daily shampoo (I use a deep conditioning (Redken) and a deep cleansing (Suave – I know, I know – cheap drugstore brand, but I swear it works really well) one each once throughout the week too). I have tons of really, really, really thin hair that at the time was long and this shampoo seemed to do the trick not to weigh it down or make it greasy, and I do not use conditioner except for once a week. However, I hated the long hair and after my wedding I did what every bride does, and chopped my hair off into a cute Posh Spice-esque bob and now the shampoo doesn’t seem to be working as well as it was when my hair was longer. I don’t know why the shampoo wouldn’t work as well on short hair as it would long hair, so that leads me to believe that maybe it went bad?

YES, shampoo absolutely goes bad. Usually after about 12 months or so, depending on how many natural vs. unpronounceable ingredients it contains. I generally find that better-quality shampoos turn sooner than the drugstore brands, which I suspect are formulated for a longer shelf life. So that old bottle of Pantene you’ve had since college may still seem okay, but it’s still not a bad idea to chuck anything you aren’t using regularly about once a year. Two years, tops.
(I believe I already told the story about my mom saving the bottles of nice products I bought her “for special occasions,” and how I ended up tossing them FIVE YEARS LATER, when they were practically rancid yet still over half-full. When you splurge on shampoo or skin cream or even perfume, use it or lose it, people.)
How can you tell that shampoo is bad? Usually by the smell. An expired bottle of Pureology, for example, smells straight up like wet dog. Other signs: the shampoo appears separated or extra runny when you squirt some into your hands, and a lack of good lather. For conditioners (which last longer than shampoo, I think), a runny or liquid-y texture is a dead giveaway.
Since you bought your shampoo last summer, you really should have a few more months before any of that stuff starts happening, UNLESS it was on sale because it had already been sitting on the shelf for awhile. (Which honestly is the biggest reason to be wary of buying shampoo online or from other non-salon stores — I recently caved to a tremendous discount on a bottle of leave-in conditioner at Filene’s Basement against my better judgement, and sure enough, I might as well spray straight rubbing alcohol into my hair.) (I’m not equating Ulta with this sort of thing at all, just thought I’d mention it while we’re sort-of on the topic.)
But if you don’t notice any of the other signs of expiration other than “it’s just not working as well,” it’s probably got more to do with your haircut.
In your case, you might be touching and flipping your hair more than you used to, creating extra oil. Are you using different styling products, particularly any type of pomade or wax? Those can be very heavy on fine hair and it could be that your shampoo is just not strong enough to fully wash them out, so you’re getting more product build-up than you used to. Or it could be simply that your cut is not super-well suited to your hair type, and has nothing to do with your shampoo. OR! Your hair has a little shampoo fatigue and wants something new.
I have absolutely no evidence to support this, of course, but personally I need to switch up shampoos occasionally — even my favorites. My hair just gets tired and dull after awhile and a new kind of shampoo seems to perk it back up and get rid of any extra build-up. Ideally, I like washing with something different once a week, like you do with the Suave, but then I switch up my daily shampoo about once a year. Right now I use Wella Volumizing everyday, but once a week I manage to squeeze some remainders from my last bottle of Pureology Volumizing and shampoo with that. When that’s gone (and the bottle IS about six months old), I’ll probably swipe Jason’s shampoo occasionally.
If your shampoo is smelly or runny or any of those icky things, toss it and buy a new bottle, because that is likely to be the problem. If it still seems just fine, try something completely different — both of the products I mentioned are great for fine, oily hair. And then use up the remainder of your ISO by going back to it once a week or so.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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