Ask Unclutterer: Overflowing lotion bottles

Reader Sage submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I have tons of lotion bottles — and they are all near full, and perfectly good to use, but I only use about 4 or 5 of the scents. What do I do with the rest? I don’t want to throw them away because that would be really wasteful of the lotion.

In my high school biology class, we bred mice to track which genetic traits of an original pair of two mice were transferred on to the more than 100, fourth generation, great-great-grandmice. Before the project started, my lab partners were convinced we could name all of the offspring after rock stars who died from drug overdoses in the 1960s and 1970s. (One of us had recently discovered her dad’s Sex Pistols’ album.) Since I was in high school before the days of Google and Wikipedia, we ran out of names during the second litter of mice and had to start using names of rock stars we were surprised hadn’t overdosed. We had no idea how quickly mice bred and how fertile they were, in addition to our lack of real knowledge about the music industry. We were also overwhelmed with cleaning, feeding, tracking pregnancies, and separating the mice into independent cages.

I think of this lab experiment gone awry whenever I go through my lotions, shampoos, and conditioners. These liquids appear to breed like Sid and Nancy, our first generation pair of mice. Without much time and effort, they overwhelm drawers and shelves.

To keep your lotions, shampoos, and conditioners from cluttering up your space, try these tips that have significantly helped me:

  • Start by checking all of the bottles’ expiration dates and putting the liquids through a smell test. Dispose of any lotions that are past their use-by dates and throw out any lotions that smell rancid or funky. After pouring the expired lotion in the trash, you should be able to recycle most of the plastic bottles.
  • Identify the exact location for where you will store your lotions in the future and create a perimeter that defines the area. This will be your dedicated lotion space, and you need to commit to not storing more lotion than can fit in this footprint. When this space is stuffed, you’ll know it’s time to unclutter again.
  • To get rid of the lotions that are good but you no longer want, trade with friends and extended family members for scents you like or simply give them as gifts.
  • Another option is to donate the good lotions to a charity, like a women’s shelter or homeless shelter. Call the charity before you drop off your donation, and only donate products that you would use if you liked the scent.
  • You can also put them in a guest bathroom in a basket with a sign “For Our Guests: Help yourself!” on it.
  • You can commit to using them up, regardless of your love for them. Most lotions lose their scents an hour or two after skin contact, anyway.
  • Even though it’s not always the most sane financial decision, you should commit to buying only the small size bottles of lotion in the future. Anything over 4 oz. will likely go unused.
  • Finally, resist the urge to take home bottles of lotion from hotels in an effort to keep your lotion stash under control. Or, do the exact opposite, and stop buying lotion and only keep the free samples you like from hotels. (And, yes, hotels are okay with you taking these samples. I’ve asked numerous folks in the hotel industry and they view these products as advertising.)

Thank you, Sage, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was able to help you with your lotion dilemma. Be sure to check the comments for even more ideas on how to keep lotion, shampoo, and conditioner from becoming clutter in your bathroom.

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41 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Overflowing lotion bottles”

  1. posted by Dawn F on

    The trading idea is great – for the unwanted scents.

    I have a small handy bottle of lotion in my car and at my desk.

    I think the most important thing of all is to stop buying (or grabbing free) lotion in the first place if there is a huge, overflowing collection. Also, mention to friends and family to refrain from buying you lotion if your stash is to capacity.

  2. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    Many shelters will not take opened bottles. But Freecycle can be a good way to find these bottles of lotion some new homes – assuming, of course, that they are still in good condition.

    Lotions tend to last 2-3 years, according to Real Simple:

  3. posted by gmtb on

    I work in a very large office complex. The ladies’ room on my floor accommodates at least 300 people.

    There’s almost always a bottle of lotion in that washroom each week, it gets used up quickly, and soon another bottle is in its place.

    That’s how I dealt with all the musky lotions I got for Christmas that I couldn’t use without getting a serious headache.

  4. posted by Irene on

    I’ve taken partially-used bottles of lotion, as well as some of the unopened samples I’ve foolishly taken from hotels in the past to work with me. They’re always welcome in our ladies rooms for community use.

  5. posted by Dorothy on

    Yep, me, too — when I declutter any toiletries, I take them in a box, leave them in my office ladies’ room, and put a sign saying, “Help yourself!” on it. The items are usually gone in an hour or two.

  6. posted by themusiclivez on

    If they are brand new and of a brand like Bath & Body Works they will sell on eBay. My friend sold her extra lotions and body sprays in “lots” on eBay and made a nice amount of money!

  7. posted by Caroline on

    I buy only buy scent free (or a certain scent I know we can handle in the house), and make my own from herbs I grow. But I get scented lotions and bath bubbles etc for Christmas gifts all the time! (argh!)

    I commit to only using the ones I made or bought for myself, re-gift unopened scented lotions, give them to friends “just because”, or donate them to local places. We are fairly scent-free in our home and it helps allergies and such very much.

    Also, travelling in the Carribean, you can also leave these unwanted, unopened bottles as tips each day for cleaning staff, who just adore them!

    When my lotion shelf runneth over, I purge (which happens rarely now). I shamelessly throw them away if I have not used them in a year, or its less than 1/4 full. Dump, then recycle. I re-use the tins I put my home-made lotion in for the next years batch.

  8. posted by Rue on

    You could try selling them on eBay even if they are opened, assuming they’re barely used. I had an opened bottle of body spray I used maybe 10 mists out of, and sold it along with a couple of other brand-new bottles on eBay. Just be sure to disclose that it’s used and how much so your buyer doesn’t think they’re getting a full bottle when they’re not.

    You could also Craigslist them as well. If you just want to get rid of them and don’t care about making any money, I bet they’d be gone real quick if you put them in the Free section!

    Host a swap day with your friends! All of you bring all the toiletries you don’t want anymore, you swap between yourselves, and chuck/donate/sell/whatever the rest.

    If you have anything new and unopened from Bath & Body Works that you just don’t like, I believe they’ll let you bring it in and swap it out for a scent you do like. I overheard someone do this a few years ago. You might call the store to check though. 🙂

  9. posted by Kathy W on

    I work in a hospital with acutely mentally ill patients. We provide toiletries for our patients, but the hospital purchases mass quantities of the cheapest kind…whenever my husband & I travel, I collect the hotel toiletries & take them to work for our patients, and they are so grateful to have something a little nicer…you might check with local hospitals to see if they could use your extras.

  10. posted by Pamela on

    If the scent is just too strong, you can always dilute it by mixing with some unscented lotion. That’s what I did with a nice, but over-powering scent. Economical too.

    But to get rid of extras without being wasteful, bringing it to work is a great idea. My dept is mostly women and we have a basket where we all drop off samples and beauty stuff we don’t want. Everyone browses and takes what they want. Providing to the ladies room is a great idea too!

  11. posted by anne on

    I buy a big pump bottle of standard non or low-scented lotion and add all the other lotions to it and shake it up. That way, I know there is a decent base lotion in there that doesn’t reek, and the stinky lotions from hotels, etc. dissipate into it. That way you can ditch the zillion little 1 or 2 oz bottles.

    I also add sunscreen to this pump bottle in the summer, and crush up old makeup (eye shadow) into a powder and add it for some body sparkle!

  12. posted by adora on

    Lotions are great for cleaning leather. Use only those without special ingredient like AHA or heavy coloring. You can easily go through a litre bottle if you have leather sofa. Also: handbags, wallets, shoes and boots.

  13. posted by adora on

    p.s. Don’t throw away expired lotion! Use them to clean leather goods!

  14. posted by chacha1 on

    I agree – take them to work. And I may be going out on a limb here, but quit buying “new” scented lotions. You know the ones you like. If you have this pattern of overbuying it’s clear you like variety, but as Erin says, the scents don’t really last anyway.

  15. posted by Emily on

    I hate getting gifted with lotion and body spray! I have vowed that unless someone specifically asks me for it, I will never give lotion or body spray as a gift. I have spent the last ten years trying to get out from under a pile of lotions and body sprays gifted from well-meaning friends and relatives.

    To solve this dilemma, I ended up Freecycling a lot of them. I also give them to my little sister-in-law who is 14 and loves them. If I like a scent or lotion I set it out somewhere where I will be reminded to use it, because if it’s not out it is forgotten.

  16. posted by sunny on

    You can also donate them to a retirement community. They seem to love lotions!

  17. posted by Dawn on

    Excellent point about not buying the larger, value-sized containers of lotions and such. That was so hard for me to get used to, but it makes a huge difference! I’ve found I’d rather pay more for a smaller container of a higher quality product that I’ll use up than pay less for a huge bottle of a product that will sit and go to waste. This is true with other items as well.

  18. posted by Kim on

    Sage, this happened to me, too. I have a great lotion bag–it came with a gift pack from L’Occitane and was beautiful, sturdy, and holds a few bottles but not too many. I’ve had it for almost ten years now. I love to open its drawstring, I love to slip the bottles back in when I’m done, and I never want to overfill it, so that keeps me from buying new ones–it turns the whole lotion process into something I look forward to. Try finding a container that you really love, so that you feel like you have to “audition” new lotions to make it into that bag. And if you buy the best you can afford, you’ll need less of it.

  19. posted by Beverly D on

    A place that gets forgotten for this kind of donation is shelters for women veterans. Most cities have at least one. Call the local VA hospital and they can steer you in the right direction. Women veterans have the same issues men do, and end up homeless on the streets the same way many men do. Shelters for “females only” need things like lotions, body wash, menstrual supplies, deodorant, toothpaste/toothbrushes, etc.

  20. posted by WilliamB on

    Most of my ideas have been posted already: office restroom, locker room, shelters, your favorite corner beggar, exchange with friends.

    Which leaves me only with expiration dates. Lotions’ expirations has nothing to do with the so-called expiration date. Expiration dates on lotions and such are a marketing department invention (so is the repeat part of “lather, rinse, repeat” and that an Alka-Seltzer dose is two tablets rather than one – you learn the darnest things working for a marketing department). Trust your eyes, nose, and sense of touch instead.

  21. posted by Dee on

    I have another suggestion – have a product swap party. It’s easy to do this in conjunction with a clothing exchange and trade both unwanted clothes and unwanted lotions. I made a friend’s day with my full collection of Victoria’s Secret ‘Pink’ toiletries which were all brand new but too strong for me. It was fun and entertaining. There was little left over afterwards and I just used it to moisturize my boots and other leather.

  22. posted by Sky on

    Erin, I love your mouse story!
    I cleaned out my linen closet and threw out all the lotions, bubble bath, powders, make-up, etc. that I knew I would never use. From now on, I buy the brand I like and anything else that comes in uninvited goes right on out the door.
    My house – my rules, no clutter.

  23. posted by j on

    You might ask your friends or family members. A surprising number of people have dry skin and I know I go through 2 or 3 lotions, body cremes, oils, or moisturizers a month. You never know if one of your friends is spending a fortune to keep from itching when you could help!
    And another note, try putting the bottles everywhere that you spend time. I have one in my bag, my desk at work, by my bed, in my bathroom and in the front room. If I see them all the time, then I am reminded to take a few minutes to apply lotions, which helps control the itching and dryness!

  24. posted by Wesa on

    As someone who volunteers at a women’s transitional home, I would add that most places will only accept unused bottles of lotion, not partially used.

  25. posted by Jess on

    I recently totally reorganized my toiletries when we moved. First and foremost, I, too, realized that I *like* buying lotion, shower gel, etc., (I’m not much of a shopper otherwise, but drugstores do something to me). So buying the mega value pack is not something I’ll do in the future– small sizes only.

    Second, I tossed anything that I really didn’t like or thought I would never use.

    Third, I used the top two shelves of a shallow linen closet outside our bathroom to create a “store” of all the lotion, soap, bodywash, exfoliating scrubs, etc. I had collected. I arranged it nicely so it’s an attractive display. Only 1 item of a particular type goes into the bathroom at any given time. They live either under the sink in small white bins separated by function (hair, face, body) or in the shower (NOT on the counter-top). I have committed to using what I have and “shopping” my home store before I buy anymore new lotions and what not. It’s actually been really easy to do it this way, and keeping everything pretty and uncluttered makes me actually want to use the lotions I have rather than running out and buying more.

    BTW, my ordinarily neat and decluttered husband has a thing about bringing home the hotel lotion/soap/shampoo from every business trip. He used to have a big shoe box filled with the stuff, which he said he used for travel, but he always goes to hotels and gets more of the stuff, so the collection never went down. I made him toss it and he promised not to let his travel collection get to more than 1-2 bottles of each substance at a time (and it now lives in his travel bag, not a shoe box).

  26. posted by L.M. on

    Some charity thrift stores (where you donate stuff for them to sell at their store) will take them even if opened, or less than full. A local charity thrift store near me has a whole section of lotions, cosmetics, haircare products, etc. Some new but some opened and partly used. Freecyle is another good option that someone mentioned! Or put out at your garage sale. I once bought a partly used bottle of hair gel at a garage sale myself. Thought it would be a good way to give the brand a try. I loved it and have used it ever since.

  27. posted by Sue on

    I toss all my unwanted lotions and body sprays and take them to family gatherings; my nieces pounce on them. The motel/hotel sizes go to the homeless shelter, who also wants the tiny soaps.

    Lotions make great leg shave cream, and I will slather my dry feet in the extra and pull on a pair of thick cotton socks to lounge in while watching TV.

  28. posted by klutzgrrl on

    I don’t think place where I live would accept anything unsealed due to health regulations.

    Frankly, I’d just toss the lot. They are mostly full of mineral oils and synthetic perfumes that aren’t good for your skin anyway. It’s a bit like donating packaged junk food because you’re on a health kick – why give someone else your sugar and additives?

    The issue of wasting or conserving when uncluttering comes up regularly on the forum – it’s something we all struggle with. With consumable products, sometimes it’s better just to get rid of things.

    All you need is a simple moisturiser, a bar of soap, shampoo and if you’ve long hair, conditioner. Anything else is superfluous. Though I’ve always been kinda ‘low maintenance’ with that stuff… I’m sure many would disagree with gusto!

  29. posted by Lindsey on

    With all due respect, I would not advise doing what Anne mentioned: mixing them all together, throwing in sunscreen & makeup. That’s just asking for contamination & bacterial issues!

  30. posted by TMichelle on

    I second Sue. Extra lotions and conditioners make great shaving cream.

  31. posted by Margaret on

    Seriously, you put lotion on leather furniture? Details, please.

  32. posted by gypsy packer on

    I routinely dump shampoos and conditioners “found” in vacated rentals and purchased at flea markets, into a half-gallon milk jug and use them. I’ve done it for years, with no bacterial contamination problems-seriously, how could organisms live in all those chemicals? Hand lotions can be used the same way, with one warning: unscrupulous manufacturers use alcohols in their profits, to increase long-term skin drying and sell more product. I mix lotions/creams half-and-half with cheap petroleum jelly.

  33. posted by HH on

    Seriously? All this effort for a perishable product like LOTION? Dump it down the drain and recycle the bottles.

    As one who has been on the receiving end of such “gifts”: “Here, I didn’t like it, but maybe you will?!” Is that really the message you want to give the people you care about?

  34. posted by Pamela on

    Um, dumb question… How do you get all these bottles of lotion?? Stop buying them. I have one bottle by the kitchen sink and one in the bathroom. When it is almost out, I get a replacement. That’s it.

    Same for shampoo and conditioner.

    The ultimate in uncluttering is to not buy what you don’t need in the first place. 😉

  35. posted by ajeanne on

    I travel a lot for work. When I use the little bottles of lotions or the soap in a hotel room, if I like them, I take them home. Some hotels have really nice lotions & soaps. They are mild, smell good, and the soaps are often French milled, which means they last longer. (If they smell really strong, then I don’t bring them home.)

    Okay… here’s the thing. I haven’t had to buy soap now for a couple of years. To be fair, it’s just me in the shower, so this probably wouldn’t work if I had a partner sharing the soap. Oh, and when the soap gets small, then I fuse it to the next bar so that I never have to throw the little pieces away. This is simple, green & doesn’t waste anything. I think my Depression-era parents would approve. 🙂

    The little bottles of lotion don’t seem to go as far, but I use them up, too… and keep one in my purse & one by my desk.

    @Pamela… I’m with you…. replace the lotions when they’re almost gone, or have just one spare in the cabinet. Enough. 🙂

  36. posted by Kimberly on

    If you don’t want to toss them, start carrying a bottle or two in your purse at a time and leave them in ladies restrooms near the sink when you go. People will enjoy having lotion to use. You could be the lotion fairy.

    If it were me, I would toss them if it were more than I knew I could ever use. I only keep one bottle of unscented Cetaphil lotion and a tub of Eucerin for bad chapping b/c scented lotion bothers me.

  37. posted by L.M. on

    Quote: As one who has been on the receiving end of such “gifts”: “Here, I didn’t like it, but maybe you will?!” Is that really the message you want to give the people you care about?

    Response: I think we need to remember that different families/friends are different in this regard. I am from a VERY practical and frugal family – we are thrilled to pass on used stuff we don’t like to each other! We do it all the time. I love to acquire a Bath&Body Works lotion only used a couple times because they did not like the scent or whatever! My husband’s family, however, are total opposite – this would be an INSULT!!

  38. posted by Cari on

    For unused bottles of lotions and soaps: I belong to Soldiers Angels, a non-profit organization that supports our military overseas and their families. Small hygiene items are always welcomed at their warehouse for care packages and veterans’ homes. Google their name for their website.

  39. posted by HH on

    If it is open, please do not regift. Lotion is a cosmetic. It spoils because we introduce bacteria as we use it. If you have touched the top with your fingers, even one time, you have contaminated the lotion with bacteria. It’s not really a question of frugality, in my opinion. I have a friend who works for BBW, and any lotion that is returned that is opened MUST be thrown out. Why? It is contaminated.

  40. posted by tordis on

    hey, how about not buying that many bottles in the first place???

    i use one kind of cosmetic thing at a time. when it’s empty, i buy a new one. it’s as simple as that.

    how about multitasker cosmetics? 😉 i use one lotion/cream for the whole body – face, legs, ellbows etc. it’s not necessary to use one special lotion for your left and another one for your right eye brow. that’s just what the industry wants you to do…

  41. posted by carolynw on

    I take all the bottles of lotions and potions from my hotel stays. A few times I year I bag them all up and drop them off at the local women’s shelter. They love it.

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