Is Your Sunscreen Expired? Here’s How to Tell

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You apply sunscreen on any bits of exposed skin every day, all year long, riiight? Okay, you know you should, but (like so many of us) you might have slacked on the SPF during the winter months. Now that you’re emerging out of hibernation, you find yourself reaching for your favorite body sunscreen for the first time in, well, a while. Like really reaching—way back in the cupboard. As you generously slather it across your skin you wonder, “How long has this sunscreen been in there?” And, with a cautious sniff, “Does sunscreen expire?”

The short answer is yes—sunscreen expires. But (as long as you’re storing your sunscreen correctly) you’ve got a few years before you need to worry about it going bad. To learn more, we turned to skin and product experts to find out what happens if you use expired sunscreen and how to tell if it’s time to toss your bottle.

Meet the experts:

  • Serena Mraz is a board-certified dermatologist of Solano Dermatology and Associates in Vallejo, California.

  • Omer Ibrahim is a board-certified dermatologist in Chicago.

  • Ginger King is a cosmetic chemist based in Parsippany, New Jersey.

In this story:

Does sunscreen expire?

Like all skin-care products, sunscreen does eventually expire. But unlike most skin-care products—whose period after opening (PAO) clocks start ticking once you crack the seal—it’s a little easier to tell your SPF’s best-by date, regardless of when you open it for the first time. “It’s considered a drug by FDA classifications, so you’ll see an expiration date on the package,” says cosmetic chemist Ginger King. Most sunscreens have a shelf-life of two to three years, though Omer Ibrahim, MD, a Chicago-based, board-certified dermatologist, says exposure to harsh elements (like direct sunlight or hot temperatures) for extended periods can make them expire or lose effectiveness before their printed dates. In other words, if your sunscreen has been rolling around the backseat of your car for a year, or sitting in your bathroom window, it might be time to cut your losses.

Does mineral or chemical sunscreen have a longer shelf-life?

Mineral sunscreen (also known as physical sunscreen) sits on top of the skin and blocks sun rays at the surface—this type of sunscreen can be easier for people with sensitive skin to tolerate but comes with a thicker texture that might leave a white cast. The ingredients in chemical sunscreens absorb harmful rays before they reach the skin—chemical sunscreens are light and clear but can feel greasy on those who tend to skew towards oily skin. In other words: there are pros and cons to each formula, but which expires faster?

Under normal conditions, “sunscreens, regardless of what kind, expire at the same rate,” assures Dr. Ibrahim. However, “liquid formulas may degrade more easily in the face of caustic elements, like heat and sunlight."

He continues, "The ingredients in chemical sunscreen, such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, and homosalate are more prone to oxidation [in sunlight], making them less effective over time.”

On the other hand, “mineral agents, such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and iron oxide, are inert and much slower to break down [under heat or direct sunlight]”—either on your skin or in the bottle, says Serena Mraz, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in California.

In either case, experts agree that improperly storing your favorite sunscreen can significantly reduce the shelf-life. Storing your sunscreen in a cool, dark place will help you maximize its best-by date. “Sunscreen, like any skin-care product, is best stored in cool or moderate room temperature conditions,” says Dr. Mraz. This means out of direct sunlight (and hot cars). “When out, put sunscreen bottles in the shade, wrap them in a towel, or place them in a cooler,” recommends Dr. Ibrahim.

You should not use expired sunscreen—here’s why

Using expired sunscreen comes with all the downfalls you’d expect: It might smell weird and the texture might be off. But using expired sunscreen can also be quite dangerous. “Expired sunscreen is problematic because it will potentially give the user a false sense of security about the degree of protection provided,” says Dr. Mraz. While you dutifully lather on your sun protection, the very ingredients that are intended to keep you safe from harmful rays might not be doing their job.

“In the US, there are 16 approved UV filters,” says King. (These are the ingredients that either block or absorb and stop sun rays from reaching your skin.) “These filters do degrade over time.” So the bottle you’re using might say SPF 30, but the effectiveness could be closer to SPF 15 if that bottle is expired. “You will not get the same protection,” King adds.

What exactly does that mean for your skin? Says Dr. Ibrahim, “Using expired sunscreen leads to sunburns and carcinogenic DNA damage in the skin,” which can lead to skin cancer. Every time you get a sunburn, the DNA in your skin cells is damaged—and that sun damage never goes away. “Other ingredients and certain oils can go bad over time, which can irritate the skin or cause breakouts,” adds Dr. Ibrahim.

King says sun exposure only accelerates any potential irritation caused by expired products. So, if not a harmful sunburn, you might get a rash or nasty breakout from using expired sunscreen in the sun—and that’s reason enough to pick up a fresh bottle.

It’s always better to be safe than sorry. If you suspect your sunscreen is past its prime or has spent too much time basking in the sun itself, restock for summer. But if you’re in a bind and simply cannot get to a fresh bottle, any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen—even if it’s expired. So slather up (then get ye’ to your nearest convenience store).

How to tell if your sunscreen is expired

“The most reliable way to tell if sunscreen has expired is using the date on the bottle,” says Dr. Ibrahim. Easy enough, but if there’s no date to be found or the date is somehow obscured, “one can use other clues to assess the likelihood that the product is past its prime,” says. Dr. Mraz.

Determining whether or not your sunscreen has expired is a lot like deciding if the leftovers you forget about in the back of your fridge have expired—by sight and smell. Does it look weird, feel weird, or smell weird? It’s probably a goner. “Expired sunscreen can change consistency, change color, or have a funny smell,” says Dr. Ibrahim.

Change in consistency

Any change in the consistency of your sunscreen could indicate that it’s expired or otherwise gone bad. “It might be more watery, gritty, or chunky,” says Dr. Ibrahim. As a rule of thumb, if your sunscreen formula has separated or clumped in any way, it’s time for a new bottle. “Separation is a sure sign of instability,” says King.

Change in color

Expired sunscreen may change color. “It usually gets darker,” says King, “or turns brown.” Any discoloration or yellowing indicates that your sunscreen is past its use-by date.

Change in odor

Many sunscreens have a tropical or beachy scent to invoke those sunny-day vibes; others just have that distinct, mild scent that’s unique to formulas with SPF. Expired sunscreen may take on a funny or unusual scent—“this scent can vary depending on what chemical or physical sunscreen is used,” says King. “It will just not smell like a fresh product.”

Of course, this method of detecting sunscreen expiration (or bad leftovers) is rather subjective, says Dr. Ibrahim. “If there’s any doubt about the freshness of the sunscreen, replace it.”

For more sun protection:

Now, learn all about the history of sunscreen:

Originally Appeared on Allure