Yes, Sunscreen Expires: 3 Ways To Tell + Why You Shouldn't Slather On Spoiled Sunscreen
While sunscreen is a year-round must-have (proper sun care knows no season), summer has us especially vigilant. As tanks, shorts, and swimsuits become the unofficial seasonal uniform, slathering sunblock on that exposed skin—and reapplying every two hours—is key for avoiding painful burns and the long-term effects of sun damage.
You know this; you've heard this; it's likely burned into your brain (pun very much intended). But did you know your sunscreen has a shelf life? Yes, even the strictest of reapplying schedules can suffer from an expired formula. Here's what happens if you use a sunscreen from summers past.
Does sunscreen expire?
Short answer: absolutely. "Sunscreen is a highly FDA-regulated over-the-counter drug," explains board-certified dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., FAAD. Meaning, each bottle of sunscreen should be stamped with an FDA-approved expiration date, no matter whether it's a chemical or mineral option. If you can't see the date (perhaps the ink has rubbed off from summer sweat), know that most bottles typically have a shelf life of around three years, give or take.
However, that's assuming you store it correctly: The FDA recommends storing your sunscreen in the shade, away from direct sunlight and heat (that's especially true for chemical sunscreens, as they include already unstable molecules that can break down with UV exposure; more on that later). Sounds totally doable, until you remember that time your trusty sunblock rolled out of your beach tote and onto the hot sand. Or perhaps you've accidentally left the bottle in your car one scorching summer day. Hey—we're not perfect.
How to tell.
If the above scenarios sound familiar, you may be dealing with expired sunscreen well before the FDA-approved date stamped on the label. That said, mind the tell-all signs of a sunscreen gone bad:
- Smell: If your sunscreen starts to smell pungent, that's a sure sign it's gone rancid. Usually, an off-putting smell is a sign the sunscreen is contaminated with bacteria. If you're handling the bottle with dirty hands or frequently exposing it to air, particles can creep into the formula and change its makeup over time, especially if your sunscreen contains natural-leaning—yet unstable—ingredients.
- Texture: "Often the out-of-date sunscreen will become more watery or it may clump," explains Ciraldo. Expired sunscreen tends to separate, sometimes with sedimentation at the bottom of the bottle; that's why you may notice a thinner consistency at first squeeze—all that thick goop is likely settling at the bottom.
- Discoloration: It might be easier to tell with a lotion as opposed to a spray, but if you notice a yellow or brown tinge to your sunscreen, you're probably better off tossing the bottle. That yellowish color typically happens due to oxidation over time (i.e., when the formula is exposed to air and sunlight).
Why expired sunscreen is bad for skin.
Simple answer? It won't work as well. Especially your chemical sunscreens: Those active ingredients (like oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone) are unstable molecules that break down in the sun over time—rendering them ineffective and your skin more susceptible to burns. While mineral options like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide don't have that same issue (these inorganic compounds are more stable in sunlight), they can still face some degradation as the years go on. Plus, sunscreens are often loaded with emulsifiers, tints, and other ingredients that can certainly spoil—you don't want to be putting those on your skin.
Which brings us to the next point: Aside from the efficacy (in case you need another reason to toss a rancid sunblock), expired sunscreen has the potential to cause skin reactions or breakouts for some. Slathering on a sunscreen contaminated with bacteria is a recipe for irritation, no? Best to avoid the sticky situation and buy a fresh bottle.
Yes, sunscreen expires, and using a sunblock gone bad can be harmful to your skin in more ways than one. If you've gone summer after summer with the same few bottles (first, you may want to question whether you're slathering on the recommended amount), you might want to check for some signs of degradation. Or just make it a habit to renew your sunscreen inventory each summer. Take it from Ciraldo: "If you are in doubt at all, it's well worth the investment to discard any product about which you are uncertain and purchase a fresh SPF."
Jamie Schneider is the Associate Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in New York City.