Sunscreen expiration: does sunscreen ever expire?

Experts weigh in on sunscreen expiration messages which can be confusing. What do the 'use by' dates actually mean?

Do you check your sunscreen expiration? A young woman with a striped sunhat and stripey breton top stands in the sunshine listening to music
(Image credit: Getty Images / Tomas Rodriguez)

Have you ever noticed you missed the sunscreen expiration date and wondered if you can still use it? Sunscreen isn’t always cheap, and throwing away a nearly full bottle might feel wasteful. But you also want to make sure you do right by your skin and if it's out of date, does it still work?

Using ineffective sunscreen could lead to sunburn and skin damage, but discarding what seems like a perfectly good bottle of sunscreen doesn’t sound great either. So what’s the answer? Does sunscreen ever really expire?

The truth is, 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, 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

(Image credit: Getty Images / Jonathan Storey)

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, 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

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.

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