The sun is shining and the waves are calling. You reach in the back of the cabinet for your old faithful sunscreen bottle. Seeing the torn and faded label, you wonder how long you’ve had it. A few summers? Maybe a couple of years now? It can’t go bad … can it?
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According to dermatologist, Alok Vij, MD, sunscreen can expire and it does sooner than most people think if it’s not stored correctly.
“The general shelf life of sunscreen is about three years, as long as it’s been stored in a cool, dry area,” explains Dr. Vij. “Storing the bottle in a hot or humid area can quickly break down many of the active ingredients that block UV rays.”
Increased heat, light and humidity makes sunscreen degrade more rapidly. So that bottle rolling around your car all summer baking in the sun? It probably doesn’t offer the same UV protection it once did.
A bottle of sunscreen actually shouldn’t last that long
It’s important to keep in mind that if you’re using sunscreen correctly, it shouldn’t last you all that long.
“Realistically, if you’re using sunscreen the way it’s directed, each bottle shouldn’t last you more than a couple of months,” says Dr. Vij. “The recommendation is to put on a full ounce of sunscreen to cover the exposed parts of the body ― arms, legs, back, chest.”
An ounce is the size of typical shot glass. And since most sunscreen bottles have about 4 ounces in them, you could be using the whole bottle in a single day or within a few weeks if you’re outside a lot.
But what about end-of-the-season sales? Most stores will offer marked-down sunblock to help get rid of inventory. “It might be OK, but you don’t know how the sunscreen was stored,” Dr. Vij says “It could have been kept in a hot warehouse all summer long. At that point, the active ingredients may have already gone bad.”
When it comes down to it, it’s reasonable to replace sunscreen every summer― or every month, if you’re using it often. If you don’t spend much time outside, store it in a cool, dry area over the winter. Write the date you got it on the bottle to remember when it’s time to replace it.
Different formulas, same bad news
Whether you’re using mineral-based or chemical-based sunscreen, not all of the ingredients are going to be stable over time. Dispersants are added to both forms of sunblock to help it spread onto the skin more evenly, but these ingredients can degrade over time, leading to textural changes or uneven effectiveness. Also, if the preservatives in sunscreen don’t work because of break down, bacteria can grow in the bottle, which can lead to rashes and acne.
With mineral-based sunblock, titanium and zinc typically won’t degrade, but other stabilizers found in the bottle will. If a mineral-based sunscreen goes bad you might notice a grittiness or feel little pebbles in the formula. Often times, this type of expired sunblock won’t disperse or rub into the skin.
With chemical-based sunscreen, it tends to go bad more quickly, especially if the sun roasts the container. Two active ingredients found in chemical-based sunscreens ― avobenzone and octinoxate ― are some of the most unstable ingredients. If they become oxidized, you could potentially get allergic contact dermatitis. This looks like blistering sunburn, but it’s actually an allergic reaction due to light and heat reaching the chemicals and then being slathered on the skin.
“If you’re using expired sunscreen, you’re essentially just putting on a regular moisturizer and aren’t getting any sort of UV protection,” says Dr. Vij. “A lot of people think that sunscreen makes them invincible. But if it’s old or expired, you’re more susceptible to getting burnt.”
Expired sunscreen actually means that the product will no longer protect you and it increases your potential for sunburns, sun damage and skin cancer.