With it finally starting to feel like spring, you reach into your cabinet for last summer’s bottle of sunscreen. Suddenly, it occurs to you: Is this still good?
For the moment, let’s ignore the fact that you really should be applying sunscreen year-round so that we don’t veer off-topic, which is: Does sunscreen expire? Yes, sunscreen absolutely expires.
Just like unprocessed food, sunscreen can go bad and the ingredients can spoil. An easy way to tell if yours has is it will have a watery consistency. But even before that, the ingredients can become less effective. This means your sunscreen isn’t protecting you from sunburns, sun damage, and skin cancer, as well as you think it is.
Is there harm in using expired sunscreen?
We’ve all drank milk past its expiration date. At least, I have. And I’m still here. No harm done. So, on the list of things to be worried about, using just-expired sunscreen shouldn’t be near the top, right? Not so fast.
There are two big concerns with expired sunscreen. First, it won’t protect you. “Expired” means it’s not going to come anywhere near the SPF rating stated on the bottle. That applies to both chemical and mineral sunscreens.
Chemical sunscreens that contain the likes of oxybenzone, homosalate, and avobenzone can oxidize and become less effective. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, the active ingredients in mineral sunscreens, don’t oxidize, but they do still degrade. When that happens, the sunscreen can become grainy. The color and odor can also change. While the active ingredient still works, the sunscreen may not spread properly.
That leads us to the second concern with expired sunscreen. Even if the active ingredient is still technically doing what it’s supposed to be doing, changes to the sunscreen overall can render it ineffective or problematic for the skin.
For example, opening and closing the container with dirty hands can expose the sunscreen to bacteria. Once that happens, the bacteria will grow inside the bottle, increasing the potential for breakouts.
When to buy new sunscreen
Most sunscreens are designed to last three years. So, look for an expiration date on the container. (Not all brands will have one.)
Regardless of the date (or the absence of one), it’s always a good idea to test the consistency of your sunscreen before you use it. If anything seems out of the ordinary, it’s probably been contaminated with bacteria. The same goes for the smell.
There are other factors that could cause your sunscreen to spoil faster than it should, like storing it in a warm place (your car, purse, or gym bag). If that’s the case, replace your sunscreen after a few months, just to be safe.
If you’re putting on sunscreen every day and reapplying at regular intervals, a bottle likely won’t last you that long anyway.