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Yes, Sunscreen Expires: 3 Ways To Tell + Why You Shouldn't Slather On Spoiled Sunscreen

Jamie Schneider
Author:
Updated on June 15, 2022
Jamie Schneider
mbg Beauty & Wellness Editor
By Jamie Schneider
mbg Beauty & Wellness Editor
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen, covering beauty and wellness. 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.
Woman on The Beach Applying Sunscreen
Image by Kike Arnaiz / Stocksy
Last updated on June 15, 2022

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. 

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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.

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Signs your sunscreen has expired.

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: 

1. 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. 

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2. 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. 

3. 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). 

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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. 

The best sun care tips:

  • Reapply every two hours: We've said this before and we'll say it again: You should be reapplying your SPF every two hours. If you're going in and out of the pool or sweating from the summer heat, perhaps even more often.
  • Don't forget often missed spots: While your arms, legs, and face may be covered in SPF, did you get the back of your ears? How about the hands and feet? Scalp sunscreen exists, too. Be sure to apply SPF to every part of your body that sees the sun.
  • Use the correct amount: One common mistake seen in sun care is failing to apply enough sunscreen. Here are the go-to rules: For the body, use a shot glass full of SPF. For the face, run your sunscreen along your pointer and middle finger to get the right amount for your face and neck.
  • Bring sprays and powders for reapplication: We know—Reapplying SPF is a bit of a chore. To make this easier, bring some spray-on sunscreen for reapplication on the body. If you have makeup on or just want a quicker way to reapply face SPF, check out these brush-on powder sunscreens for the face.
  • Stay out of the midday sun: If you're trying to focus on proper sun care, you may want to avoid bathing in the sun during peak hours. Especially if you burn easily, this is one way to safely navigate summer days safely.
  • Regularly visit the derm: It's best to see your derm at least once a year to get a total body scan for any signs of skin cancer. If you find any unusual moles or sunspots, go ahead and pay the dermatologist a visit before then—The earlier the better.
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The takeaway. 

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." Not sure what sunscreen to purchase? Here's a list of 12 phenomenal natural mineral SPFs we swear by.

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Jamie Schneider
Jamie Schneider
mbg Beauty & Wellness Editor

Jamie Schneider is the 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.