Ever wonder whether that big old bottle of sunscreen you've had for years is still good to use?
In the summer, the days are sunnier and your skin needs more protection when you step outside. So you're probably going to dig out that bottle of SPF 50 you bought at the beach last summer — or was it the summer before?
If you've been slathering or spraying yourself with sunscreen you bought a year or more ago, you probably aren't alone. Unless you live in a place that's sunny year-round and your skin is regularly exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays, you probably only break out the heavy-duty body sunscreen in the summer or on vacations. And if you buy your sunscreen in family size or bulk, it may last you a long time, especially if you aren't using it every day.
It's obvious when packaged foods or dairy products expire, but sunscreen doesn't always come with an expiration date — and it may be harder to tell when it goes bad. So how do you know if your sunscreen is past its shelf life? And does it really matter? We spoke to two dermatologists who are members of the American Academy of Dermatology to find out.
Sunscreen can definitely expire — and once it does, it loses its strength and becomes less effective at blocking out UV rays.
"A sunscreen that has expired should be discarded, as it is less effective at preventing damage from ultraviolet light [...] the SPF listed on the label is not guaranteed for expired products, be it chemical or physical sunscreen," Dr. Meghan Feely, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, told BuzzFeed News.
If the ingredients are less effective, that makes for a higher risk of burning your skin. So for optimal protection, use sunscreen before it expires — and pick one that's broad-spectrum (which means it blocks more types of UV rays), SPF 30 or higher, and water-resistant.
Expired sunscreen sometimes loses its consistency or become discolored and may no longer look, feel, or smell the way it did when you bought it. "Physical sunscreens deteriorate and chemical sunscreens oxidize," Feely said. And no, it doesn't matter if it's spray or cream — expired means expired.
Sure, you've ignored the warnings about expired makeup or kept using that ancient bacteria-laden tube of mascara and you never got hurt. But unlike your cosmetics, sunscreen has a medical purpose: to prevent sunburns and decrease the risk of skin cancer and premature aging.
In the US, sunscreen is regulated by the FDA as an over-the-counter drug. So you should treat it like you do expired medication — don't use it and throw it away. So what do you do if the sunscreen doesn't have an expiration date?
Generally, sunscreen should last for up to three years — but if you use it as recommended, you should run out long before then.
"The FDA requires that sunscreens be labeled with an expiration date if it has not been proven to be stable for three years," Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, told BuzzFeed News. So if the sunscreen has no expiration date, this means it is okay to use for up to three years after being manufactured if it was made in the US. (The tricky part might be remembering when you bought it.)
As long as you store it inside, the sunscreen should be fine. Companies make sure the products are stable under a variety of temperatures and humidities that you might find indoors, said Feely.
However, excessive heat causes sunscreen to break down faster, so try to keep it in a cool place and out of direct sunlight. If the sunscreen has been sitting in the heat, like a hot car, Feely recommends discarding it after a few months.
So the three-year mark should really be treated as an upper limit, and you're better off replacing it regularly. "As a general rule, I look at sunscreens like annuals, not perennials. I tell my patients to use sunscreens for one season and purchase a new set for next year to be safe," Zeichner said.
Doctors generally recommend that you apply sunscreen on exposed skin every time you go outside in the sun (all year round), which means you'll probably run out before it expires. "A bottle of sunscreen, when used as recommended, should not last long. Most individuals use a half to a fourth of the amount of sunscreen that is advised. Use one ounce to cover the body and reapply the product every two hours," said Feely.
If you have to use expired sunscreen, just make sure you take additional steps to protect your skin.
Ideally, you should be using fresh sunscreen and applying it as recommended, which means using a ton of it every time you go outside. But things happen, and you may be stuck with an old bottle at the beach or pool and have no other options.
Is expired sunscreen better than nothing? Yes, of course. "But know that it likely will not give you the level of protection you may be used to, so it is important to exercise extra sun-protective behavior," Zeichner said. This means seeking shade, wearing protective clothing and hats or sunglasses, and limiting sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when UV rays are strongest.
Everyone needs to wear sunscreen, and anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of age, gender, or race. It's estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, according to the AAD. So make sure to load up on the sunscreen, limit your exposure, check your body for moles and marks regularly, and ask your doctor how often you should have a skin cancer screening.