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Does Sunscreen Expire? Know If Your Sunscreen Is Still Effective

As you plan outdoor activities this summer, sunscreen is a must-have item in your bag. Sunscreen protects you from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight. But is that half-used tube from last summer still good? Does sunscreen expire? Here’s everything you need to know about sunscreen and its expiration date.

Why should you use a sunscreen?

Sunscreen protects the skin from the damage caused by UV radiation. UV rays can cause sunburn, pigmentation, wrinkles, and even skin cancers. Harmful UV rays can affect humans throughout the year, including winter months. These harmful rays can affect all skin tones and not just light-colored skin. Hence, using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) is an important part of daily skincare.

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests using sunscreen with SPF 15, the American Academy of Dermatologists currently recommends using broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. If you are using makeup that contains sunscreen instead of only sunscreen, check the SPF in your makeup to ensure it meets the recommended standards and apply a generous amount to get adequate sun protection.

Sunscreen may not be suitable for infants below six months of age. Consult a pediatrician before you apply sunscreen on infants. Instead of sunscreen, a beach umbrella or stroller canopy may be used to protect infants from UV rays. Protective measures such as a long-sleeved shirt and hat may be necessary when not using sunscreen.

Does sunscreen really expire?

A sunscreen lotion (or spray) can expire, which means its ingredients degrade over time offering less protection against sunlight. Sunscreen is considered a nonprescription drug that can be purchased over the counter. In the United States, the FDA regulates sunscreen products and requires them to have an expiration date clearly stated on the label as a good manufacturing practice. However, there is one exception to that requirement. Some sunscreens may not have an expiration date. In such a situation, the manufacturing company has conducted stability testing and shown that the product is stable for at least three years from the date of manufacturing.

The expiration date is also dependent on the storage conditions. If the sunscreen is not stored according to the conditions advised on the package, it will lose effectiveness sooner than the expiration date. Following storage instructions is essential to ensure the sunscreen is effective until its expiration date.

Sunscreens have active ingredients to protect the skin from harmful UV rays and inactive ingredients to maintain the product's consistency and stability. Each ingredient determines how long the product will remain effective.

Does mineral sunscreen expire?

Some people prefer mineral sunscreen as they may have experienced irritation or allergies from chemical sunscreen. Mineral sunscreen or sunblock are usually milder as they use inorganic molecules such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Chemical sunscreens absorb sunrays to convert them into heat energy, whereas mineral sunscreen acts as a barrier and scatters or reflects harmful radiations.

Similar to chemical sunscreen, sunblock or mineral sunscreen does expire, and their expiration date can be found on the packaging. Since these are also considered nonprescription drugs, when the expiration date is not available on the package, their expiration date would be three years from manufacture.

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, typically contained in mineral sunscreen, do not degrade. The inactive ingredients will begin to degrade over time and can result in textural changes. This may result in patchy effectiveness as the zinc and titanium are not spread evenly over the skin. A mineral sunscreen can feel gritty as the zinc or titanium precipitates from the lotion. This indicates the sunscreen has expired and should be discarded.

Signs that your sunscreen is expired

If you have sunscreen without an expiration date and can't see the manufactured date on the packaging, look for the changes listed below. These changes can help you determine if it has expired.

SignHow it shows
ColorMost sunscreens are white, and any discoloration indicates expiration or improper storage.
OdorIf sunscreen smells different than when it was purchased, rancid, or unusual, throw it away.
TextureExpired sunscreen will be thinner, and you may notice water separating from the lotion or cream.

Can you use expired sunscreen?

In a short and simple answer, expired sunscreen should not be used. Currently, no published research studies have examined the effectiveness of sunscreens past the expiry date. Hence, researchers have recommended a cautious approach by not using sunscreen products beyond their expiry date. Furthermore, researchers advise checking for a period after opening (POA). Typically, this period is 12 months, although it is not verified by any research studies.

Research has shown that most people do not check the expiry date on their sunscreen. Additionally, people are not aware that storage in high temperatures can denature the sunscreen, which could result in the sunscreen expiring before the stated expiration date. Once sunscreen has expired, it is no longer as effective as when it was first manufactured. All expired sunscreens should be discarded even if there do not appear to be any changes in their color, smell, or texture.

Does expired sunscreen work?

Expired sunscreen may no longer be effective and can no longer provide protection from UV rays, which can lead to unexpected sunburns. Protection from sun damage, premature aging, and skin cancer is reduced when sunscreen is past its expiration.

Besides, expired lotion can cause skin irritation and an increase in acne if used. Also, two common ingredients, avobenzone and octinoxate, may become oxidized (chemically reacts with oxygen) and cause contact dermatitis.

Overall, expired sunscreen no longer provides the needed protection from damaging UV rays and can have detrimental effects. If you have doubts about its effectiveness, it's best to discard it and purchase a fresh product.

How can I correctly store and use sunscreen?

Sunscreens are available in a variety of forms such as lotion, aerosol spray, non-aerosol spray, and pump spray. Sunscreen containers have storage instructions printed on them, such as “Protect the product in this container from excessive heat and direct sun.” The humor in protecting sunscreen from the sun is not lost on us, but this label needs to be taken seriously. The proper storage and use of sunscreen will ensure you have the guaranteed level of protection as promised by the label for the life of the sunscreen.

Keep it at room temperature

Sunscreen needs to be kept away from excessive moisture and extreme temperatures. Sunscreen is best stored at room temperature in a dry location, in cool, dark places such as a cupboard or bathroom cabinet. Avoid leaving sunscreen in a car (e.g., in a cupholder) as the car can get hot. Keep sunscreen out of direct sunlight (e.g., from windows or areas under direct sunlight) when indoors and out.

Use generously every 2–3 hours

Chemical sunscreens need to fully absorb into the skin to be effective. These sunscreens should be applied 15 minutes before exposure and reapplied every 2–3 hours. If you sweat profusely or go swimming, you may need to apply it more often.

Sunscreen should be applied evenly across exposed areas using a generous amount. The international protocols recommend applying 2 mg/cm2 body surface area, which equals approximately 35–45 ml for one person.

Ensure that you have applied sunscreen to often-forgotten spots such as the back of the neck, palms, ears, and scalp areas with thin hair. Also, having someone apply sunscreen to the hard-to-reach back areas of the body can improve coverage and ensure the exposed skin is adequately protected. If necessary, use a mirror when applying to the face to ensure complete coverage.

What to do if your sunscreen has expired?

If your sunscreen has expired, dispose of old sunscreen and buy new sunscreen that meets the current recommended standards of sun protection. For sun protection, consider a few other strategies:

  1. Avoid overexposure to the sun and take intermittent breaks if working outdoors.
  2. Take other precautions for sun protection. For instance, wear a full-sleeve top and long pants that cover the skin. Use a hat and sunglasses for additional protection.
  3. Consider wearing clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) tag. These clothes are lightweight and offer photoprotection.

In summary, sun safety is important for everyone, including people of all skin tones. Make sure to use sunscreen strictly as directed on the label. Check for the expiration date and avoid products beyond their expiry date. Consult a pediatrician before using sunscreens on infants and young children. Other sun protective measures such as protective clothes, sunglasses, and a hat may be necessary, especially for young children. Enjoy outdoors with adequate sun protection.

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