Sunscreen expiration: does sunscreen ever expire?

Messages around sunscreen expiration can be confusing. This is what you need to know for the summer

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Have you ever glanced at the sunscreen expiration date on your bottle before you spritz it on? There's a chance it hasn't even crossed your mind, and with sunscreen not being cheap, it's probably not the first thing you want to refresh either. That's why it might be a good idea to understand sunscreen expiration a little more, and establish whether bottles past their sell-by date still work.

In short, using sunscreen that has become ineffective can be very damaging to skin, and lead to sunburn, which is always a painful mistake. But it's worth establishing that not all sunscreen expiration dates will be the same, and doing a little more work to work out which product has the right shelf-life for you. 

Sunscreen expiration varies from one product to another. The best sunscreen for your face should last a long time, while other suncare products might not. While there may be a little wiggle room around the expiration date shown on the bottle, that doesn’t mean your product will last forever. You should always know when it’s time to throw out that old bottle of sunscreen. Thankfully you can work this out in several ways. Take note.

When it comes to sunscreen expiration it matters what's inside the bottle

What’s the first rule of buying products that you’re going to put on your body? Look at the ingredients list, duh!

Not only is it important to know what exactly you’re putting on your skin, but the contents of a bottle of sunscreen can also determine how long it will last.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all sunscreen manufacturers to put an expiration date on their bottles unless the product lasts for at least three years. So, if a bottle of sunscreen doesn’t have an expiration date and it’s less than three years old, you can assume it’s safe to use.

But Shannon Kenner, co-founder of Waxhead Sun Defense (opens in new tab), says some sunscreens will actually last longer than their expiration dates. It’s really down to the ingredients in the sunscreen—whether it’s chemical sunscreen or sunblock (physical sunscreen).

“Petrochemical sunscreen active ingredients degrade fairly quickly over time,” says Kenner. “However, mineral sunscreen active ingredients, such as zinc oxide, never lose their UV defense capabilities.”

A young woman is seen applying sunscreen to her shoulder

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It’s all to do with how the ingredients decompose. Carbon-based sunscreen petrochemicals break down over time, especially when exposed to heat and sunlight.

However, “Sunscreens that rely solely on mineral-based active ingredients will NEVER lose any of their UV protective ability, not in 10 years or a thousand,” explains Kenner.

Keep in mind, though, that some types of sunscreens may be a mix of mineral compounds and inactive ingredients. So these will expire, despite the inclusion of mineral components that will never degrade.

Know the signs of sunscreen gone bad

If you want to be ultra-cautious, go by the expiration date on the bottle. It might mean discarding the product before it actually expires, but at least you’ll know for sure that you’re always using effective sun protection—and surely, that's what matters most. That’s what Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu, skincare chemists at Chemist Confessions (opens in new tab), recommend.

“Expired sunscreen likely has degraded filters and there’s no guarantee you’re getting the right level of sun protection. Why risk it when it’s trying to protect you from skin cancer?” Fu and Lu said.

However, if you want to decide for yourself if sunscreen is still safe to use, there are ways to do that.

Check the smell and consistency

If you’re pushing past the expiration date of your sunscreen, make sure you keep an eye out for clear signs that the sunscreen is expiring.

“If the sunscreen changes in consistency and becomes more runny (or thick), smells bad, or changes to a different color, it is time to toss it and buy new sunscreen,” says Dr. Susan Chon, a dermatologist at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (opens in new tab)

A close up of a woman in the sun , she is wearing a black swimsuit and her head is tilted back as she is laughing

(Image credit: Getty Images / Sean Murphy)

Buy high-quality sunscreen with lasting ingredients

If you buy sunscreen that is 100% mineral-based, like zinc oxide, you can have peace of mind in knowing that it will never expire. Find the best, longest-lasting sunscreen options on the market and stick to those. You’ll never have to do any guesswork again.

Follow these steps to keep your sunscreen fresh and new

If you want to make your sunscreen last as long as possible, you can take precautions to make sure it doesn’t spoil from a preventable cause.

Oddly enough, heat and sunshine can impact the effectiveness of sunscreen. Ironic, right?

“Sunscreens should be kept inside the home or in a cool area, not in the car, as the heat will change their consistency and effectiveness,” explains Dr. Chon.

So if you want your sunscreen to last as long as possible, remember to always take it out of your car after you get home from your outdoor adventures. Keep it somewhere in your house where it won’t bake in the sun, like a medicine cabinet.

Unless your sunscreen is 100% mineral-based, it won’t last forever. For optimum sun protection, it’s best to slather it on whenever you go outside, so don’t be stingy. The more you use your sunscreen, the more often you’ll buy it and the fresher it will be. This will save you any worries about how close your sunscreen is to its expiration date. For more clarity on this everyday essential, read up on the difference between sunscreen vs sunblock.

The My Imperfect Life team is all about helping you navigate your world. We bring you the latest on fashion, beauty, travel and wellness so you can live life on your terms.