- Sunscreens become unstable over time, so using expired sunscreen increases your risk of sunburns and skin damage.
- Check your sunscreen bottle for an expiration date to see if it's still effective. Even unopened bottles can expire after three years.
- Heat and sun can also make sunscreen less effective before the expiration date, so toss opened SPF after a year.
- Choose a water-resistant sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum protection with an SPF 30 or higher.
Temps are warming up and after spending weeks under stay-at-home orders, everyone is eager to get outside for some fresh air. Before you go for that walk outside or head to your backyard for some sun, don’t forget to stock up on new sunscreen. What’s leftover from last summer likely isn’t as effective as you expect it to be — and the truth is using it past the expiration date can put your skin at risk.
"You should not use expired sunscreen because it becomes less effective," says Raman Madan, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Huntington Hospital. "This leads to less protection, which means more sunburns, a higher risk of skin cancer, and an increase in sun damage." But that's not all: That old bottle you've opened dozens of times before may also harbor more bacteria, which can lead to skin breakouts, adds Dr. Madan.
How to tell if sunscreen is expired
Luckily, there's an easy way to figure out if your lotion is no good. The FDA requires sunscreen manufacturers to follow the same expiration labeling requirements as over-the-counter medications, says Nicholas J. Golda, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist with the University of Missouri School of Medicine. Essentially, each bottle must have an expiration date, unless lab testing has shown it works as labeled for at least three years.
If the expiration date has rubbed off, there are other signs your sunscreen is probably past its prime. Changes in color and consistency can also indicate it's time to go, but a good rule of thumb is to toss out any opened sunscreen a year or older, says Birnur Aral, Ph.D., Director of the Health, Beauty & Environmental Sciences Lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute.
"Chemical sunscreens work on the principle of absorbing and dissipating UV rays and they can chemically change in that process," Dr. Aral says. Exposure to sunlight and heat — like when you leave a bottle in your beach bag, on your pool towel, or simply in a hot car — alters the formula on a molecular level. "If you use it, there might be some efficacy, but the SPF might not be as high," she says. Mineral sunscreens that use titanium dioxide and zinc oxide act as physical barriers, so there’s a change they remain stable for longer, but it’s not worth the risk.
How much sunscreen you should use
Many times, the real problem isn't that your sunscreen has expired — it's that you're not using enough. "If a bottle of sunscreen is lasting you and your family longer than its known effective life, it makes me concerned that you may not be applying the sunscreen properly," Dr. Golda says. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends adults apply about 1 ounce (about the size of a shot glass) of a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen at least SPF 30 or higher every 2 hours when you’re outdoors. That means a 5- or 6-ounce bottle could be gone after just one day in the sun!
This summer, be kind to your skin by seeking out shade, wearing protective clothing, and applying SPF you know will work as intended. Restock your sunscreen supply now with these formulas that got the thumbs-up in our most recent Good Housekeeping Institute tests:
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