You already know by now that it’s essential to wear sunscreen, especially when you’ll be spending long periods of time outdoors (but yes, also when it’s cloudy or you’ll only be out for a bit). If you find yourself dusting off a bottle of SPF hidden in the back of the vanity this summer, you may be wondering: Does sunscreen expire?
Here, two experts weight in on how you know if sunscreen has expired, and what may happen if you use SPF that’s past its prime.
Does sunscreen expire?
The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) actually considers sunscreen to be an over-the-counter drug, and therefore it requires an expiration date. And unlike makeup or even certain skincare products where the expiration date can seem more like a... suggestion, sunscreen is more like milk in that the expiration date really matters, and things may get weird quickly if you use it past that date.
“It is not recommended to use sunscreen that has expired,” Dr. Marisa Garshick, board-certified dermatologist tells Romper. “It’s important to remember that if you are truly using enough sunscreen and reapplying as advised, it is unlikely that you will have that much sunscreen left over at the end of the summer.”
What happens if I use expired sunscreen?
Unfortunately, if you use expired sunscreen you may find out the hard way: you’ll burn more easily because the active chemicals that protect against the sun break down over time. “Sunburns then lead to photodamage and increase one's risk of developing skin cancer,” says Angie Seelal, Physician’s Assistant at Advanced Dermatology PC.
Garshick says that expired sunscreen is unlikely to offer the same amount of protection as indicated on the label and it may no longer be effective, “which can increase the chance of developing a sunburn or sun damage.” Beyond that, she adds that active ingredients may be degraded and it may be more likely to contribute to skin irritation or sensitivity. So you could find yourself with both a sunburn and other skin irritation from the expired ingredients themselves which sounds like an all-around bad time.
If you realize you’ve used expired sunscreen before any damage has been done, wash it off, then “throw away the bottle and purchase a new one that you know will be effective,” Garshick says. There’s not much you can do after the fact except soothe any burns with aloe and stay out of the sun.
How do I know the expiration date of sunscreen?
The FDA requires the sunscreens remain effective at their full strength for three years, and this is true of both chemical and mineral (sometimes called physical) SPFs. “Although the physical blockers in mineral SPFs — zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, may last longer than chemical filters, the expiration date also takes into account the other ingredients that are found in the sunscreen and so both chemical and mineral SPFs tend to follow the same guidelines regarding expiration date,” Garshick explains.
But if you barely remember the last thing you bought or what you had for lunch, you probably can’t recall exactly when you acquired that unexciting bottle of sunscreen. Fortunately, the expiration date is usually marked on the bottle if you know where to look. I just glanced through my sunscreen stash and found expiration dates on the crimp end of the tube, on the bottom of the bottle, and in some cases not at all (this is typically in the case for products that came in external packaging that I’ve since thrown away).
The expiration date may also be found “in a picture of a jar that indicates the number of months until it expires and in some cases there may be a code that indicates when it was manufactured, suggesting expiration three years later,” Garshick says. On a tube of mineral sunscreen from Cerave, I found the lot number on the crimped part of the tube, but not an expiration. Using a tool on the CheckFresh website, I was able to find out that the product was manufactured in Feb. 2022, and so it’ll still be good for over two years. Garshick adds that it can also help to write the date you purchased the bottle, potentially on the tube itself, so don’t be shy with busting out the Sharpie for the occasion (someone at the pool is bound to comment on your ingenious idea).
“To maintain optimum shelf life, keep sunscreen at room temperature and keep it out of heat and sun directly if traveling with it,” Seelal says. Signs that sunscreen has gone bad include change in color, consistency, or smell. But even without any visible signs, if you’re not sure it’s still best to toss it. Just like bad food or expired medicine, it’s just not worth the risk.
Dr. Marisa Garshick, board-certified dermatologist
Angie Seelal, PA-C at Advanced Dermatology PC.