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 make 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.
How long does sunscreen last?
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.”
The SPF protection found in sunscreen helps guard against:
An ounce is the size of a typical shot glass. And as 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 cautions. “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.
While some manufacturers print the expiration date on the label or bottle, some don’t.
Write the date you got the sunscreen on the bottle to remember when it’s time to replace it. And remember that sunscreen can maintain its full strength for three years, if stored properly.
Does mineral sunscreen last longer?
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 your 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 breakdown, 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 container will. If a mineral-based sunscreen goes bad, you might notice a grittiness or feel little pebbles in the formula.
Oftentimes, this type of expired sunblock won’t disperse or rub into your 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 your skin.
Can you use expired sunscreen?
You shouldn’t. Expired sunscreen actually means that the product will no longer protect you and it increases your potential for sunburns, sun damage and skin cancer.
“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.”
Tips for storing sunscreen
How can you store your sunscreen so it offers maximum protection? Here’s what to do.
- Store it in a cool, dry place. This will help keep its active ingredients from breaking down. If a bottle is stored in a hot or humid area, those ingredients will start to degrade and not block UV rays as effectively.
- Keep it clean. Make sure you close the lid after using, and try to limit how many times you open and close it. Also, make sure to wash your hands before using. Bacteria on your hands can transfer to the bottle affecting the sunscreen’s effectiveness.
- Avoid direct sunlight. Don’t store containers where there’s direct sunlight. But also make sure when you’re taking a dip in the pool that you don’t leave the bottle out in the sun’s harmful rays. You can place it in shade or cover it with a towel or blanket.
Overall, it’s important to apply sunscreen daily. By doing so, you may go through sunscreen frequently. But if you’re not outside a lot, it’s key that you keep track of expiration dates and store any sunscreen bottles in a cool, dry place to keep their active ingredients intact.
“Sunscreen is an important part of every dermatologist’s daily skin care routine. Not only does sunscreen help protect against skin cancer, but it also helps prevent the signs of aging in your skin,” Dr. Vij says. “It’s a win-win.”