The sun is out. The temps are warm. And you’re about to hit the beach…or the park…or the hiking trails for a day of fun. Before you leave, you grab a bottle of sunscreen to stash in your bag—but soon realize the expiration date has passed. Or that there is no expiration date listed at all. Is the sunscreen safe to use? Will it still protect you from a nasty sunburn? Or are you better off tossing it and buying a new bottle?
Does sunscreen expire?
Sunscreen does indeed expire, and may not be as effective past that date, according to Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
“The level of protection labeled on the bottle can only be guaranteed up to the listed expiration date,” he says. “After that point, the sunscreen will likely give some level of protection; however, not necessarily as much as it originally gave.”
As an over-the-counter product, sunscreen is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is required to have an expiration date marked on its label—or prove its shelf life to be three years past the manufacture date. That means if, for whatever reason, your sunscreen bottle doesn’t have a stamped expiration date, it should be good for up to three years after its purchase date. Beyond that, it likely won’t block those ultraviolet (UV) rays as well.
Even if your sunscreen hasn’t expired, you’ll want to make sure there are no obvious changes in the formulation since the last time you used it.
“If it does not look, feel, or smell the way it did when you first purchased it, you should toss it,” Dr. Zeichner says. “I do not like anyone to take any risks when it comes to sun protection.”
Is it okay to use expired sunscreen?
The biggest risk of using an expired sunscreen is that the ingredients will have lost their effectiveness and you have a higher chance of burning. But there could be other consequences for your skin too, says Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at New York’s Medical Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery Center.
“Sunscreens that are expired can feel or look different from their original form with chemical sunscreens oxidizing and physical sunscreens degrading,” she says. “If the consistency is different, it may not feel the same way going on the skin and make the skin more sensitive or irritated. Similarly, if any preservatives have broken down with the product expiring, it can increase the chance of bacteria in the bottle, which could theoretically also lead to infections.”
That said, if you’re in a pinch and the consistency still looks okay, using expired sunscreen may not be the worst option.
“I tell my patients that expired sunscreen is certainly better than no sunscreen at all,” says Dr. Zeichner. “However, I like my patients to purchase new sunscreen every season. If you’re using sunscreen properly, the bottle that you buy for Memorial Day should definitely not be lasting until Labor Day.”
If your sunscreen has expired, you should throw it away. Unlike prescription medicines, there is no real suggested protocol for disposing of sunscreens. A local medicine collection program may take it, but many do not accept personal care products (which sunscreen is considered). If you want to recycle the bottle, squirt the unused sunscreen into the garbage rather than down the drain to prevent unnecessary chemicals from entering the water supply.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., and sun damage from UV rays can happen in as little as 15 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s why it’s so important to practice sun safety year-round, including:
- Limiting how much time you spend in the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when rays are the most intense.
- Covering up as much as possible with a broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and long-sleeved shirts or pants. Dark or bright colors are best, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, as they absorb rays rather than allowing them to penetrate. A number of clothing brands now include Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) information—how much UV radiation a fabric blocks—on their labeling.
- Staying in the shade. Umbrellas, tents, and trees can provide great shelter from the hot sun.
- And, of course, wearing sunscreen no matter what—you can still burn even in the shade.
How do I choose the right sunscreen?
Sunscreen typically protects skin against two types of rays: UVA and UVB. UVA rays are associated with skin aging, while UVB rays are associated with skin burning—both contribute to your risk of skin cancer.
UVA and UVB
There are two indicators to look for when purchasing sunscreen: If the label says “broad-spectrum” then you know it has both UVA and UVB protection. The SPF (sun protection factor) measures the level of UVB protection.
“The current recommendation from both the American Academy of Dermatology and Skin Cancer Foundation is to choose a sunscreen with at least SPF 30,” Dr. Zeichner says. “I personally recommend that my patients apply sunscreen with the highest SPF possible. In the real world, we do not apply as much sunscreen as we should and we definitely do not reapply every two hours. As a result, the level of protection we get is diluted out.”
There are skincare products beyond sunscreen that have SPF, including moisturizers, lip balm, and cosmetics. However, these products don’t always have UVA protection, which is why it’s still important to wear sunscreen.
Mineral or chemical
You’ll also want to consider the type of sunscreen you buy. There are two: mineral (also known as physical) and chemical.
Mineral sunscreen contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and works as a physical barrier to reflect the sun (think: lifeguards with the white streak on their noses).
Chemical sunscreen, on the other hand, absorbs the sun’s rays like a sponge and contains one (or many) of the following chemicals: such as avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, oxybenzone, and octinoxate. Both have their pros and cons, so if you’re looking for the best sunscreen for you, talk with your dermatologist.
Regardless of which you choose, apply roughly a shot-glass-size amount (about two tablespoons) to exposed areas of the body and face, 15 minutes before you head out to give it time to absorb. In addition to reapplying every two hours, you’ll want to put on another coat after swimming or breaking a heavy sweat, since most of the sunscreen will have washed or dripped off. But dry off first—Dr. Zeichner says the sunscreen won’t fully absorb when applied to wet skin.
When it comes to storing your sunscreen, make sure it’s at room temperature, avoiding excessive heat. Don’t leave it sitting in the sun or in a hot car, as that could potentially affect its potency. Then, with all that in mind, enjoy your day in the sun (or better yet, the shade)!