Many sunscreens are labeled with an expiration date but can you use out of date sunscreen?
The answer is no. Sunscreens don't keep their SPF forever. The SPF represents fresh sunscreen and ingredients start breaking down after production. FDA regulations require that the expiration date of sunscreens is,
"determined by appropriate stability testing."
This typically results in a 3 year expiration after production. It is possible for a manufacture to do additional stability testing after 3 years for sunscreen, but this is not the norm. Sunscreens are drugs regulated by the FDA and expiration dates are strictly regulated and based on stability test results.
But, that's not all you need to know about expired sunscreen!
The FDA goes on to say,
Expiration dates shall be related to any storage conditions stated on the labeling.
This means that how you store your sunscreen is also important for sunscreen shelf life.
What is the shelf life of sunscreen?
One way to tell how long your sunscreen should last is by the expiration date. This indicates how long it lasted if it was stored correctly. Storage conditions are critical with sunscreens.
Many of the chemical active ingredients (called UV filters) are notoriously unstable and breakdown quickly, especially if you store your sunscreen in the direct sun or in excessively hot conditions. - Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey
Storing sunscreen in hot conditions and direct sunlight is pretty much what we do with all sunscreen except the one we put on in the bathroom at the start of our day.
Sunscreens kept in a beach bag, hot car, sitting out in direct sunlight will have a shorter shelf life. - Dr. Bailey
The FDA recommends never exposing your sunscreen container to direct sunlight or excessive heat!
Protect the sunscreen by wrapping the containers in towels or keeping them in the shade. Sunscreen containers can also be kept in coolers while outside in the heat for long periods of time.
We also know that personal care products go bad faster, per the FDA, if they are kept open to the air or contaminated when fingers are dipped into them. Frankly, to complicate matters, in this scientific study on sunscreen stability, packaging of a sunscreen product also impacts stability. Basically, when in doubt, start with a fresh sunscreen.
Chemical sunscreens break down faster than mineral sunscreens.
All active ingredients other than zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are relatively unstable. I recommend sunscreen made with mineral zinc oxide, with or without titanium dioxide. They are more stable than chemical sunscreens. My Sheer Strength Pure Physical Sunscreens have expiration dates clearly labeled and give broad spectrum pure mineral sun protection. They are trusted stable formulations. Are there chemical UV filters in your sunscreen?
Chemical sunscreen ingredients (UV filters) available in the USA include:
- Aminobenzoic acid
- Padimate O
- Trolamine salicylate
There are ingredients available in Europe that are not available in the USA. Some are more stable than the chemical UV filters available here.
Does Europe have better sunscreens?
I don't think so. Ingredients available in Europe but not in the USA include: UVA filters: Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M, Mexoryl SX (ecamsule) and Mexoryl XL. They are more stable than avobenzone (our main UVA chemical filter). But some are proven in this scientific study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association to be absorbed through the skin and into your bloodstream like the chemical sunscreens available here in the US.
My strong preference is pure mineral sunscreens that are zinc oxide based; I want to see 5% or more zinc oxide listed as an active ingredient. Zinc oxide is relatively stable, is not absorbed through the skin into the blood stream and is safe for even sensitive skin.
How to tell if a sunscreen is expired
The expiration date is one important way to know if a product is expired because the FDA recommends that sunscreen expiration dates be printed on the label. Sometimes the date is on a tube crimp or the bottom of a container. Strangely, the FDA does not mandate an expiration date be listed on sunscreens and says that you should not use sunscreen that is 3 years past its "distribution" (meaning production) date, but how can a consumer know when the factory actually ran that production lot.
My recommendation is to avoid sunscreen products that don't have an expiration date printed on the container. - Dr. Bailey
In addition, if the product is within the expiration date but looks like it was stored poorly, especially if it contains chemical UV filters, I would not trust it to give the full SPF. Never use expired chemical sunscreens and never use one that may have been stored in excessively hot conditions or direct sunlight for long periods of time.
What about sunscreens that don't have expiration dates, are they good for years?
No! The FDA requires that a sunscreen product remain stable for 3 years after manufacturing but that’s not helpful because heck, when was that tube of sunscreen made that you’re holding? You want to see the expiration date. If it is not there, don't use the sunscreen.
Can you use expired sunscreen?
No, you can't trust it. Products breakdown. Sunscreen SPF declines. Bacteria grows. Oils go rancid. The list goes on. Sunscreens are drugs subject to stability testing and the potency does not last forever. Don't use expired sunscreen.
Should you use sunscreen if you don't know how it was stored?
No, again, exposure to excessive heat or direct sunlight cause all skin care products - including sunscreen - to go bad faster. Direct sunlight and storage in hot places are common. I recommend you start fresh each spring, buy new product, keep track of how you store it and buy new sunscreen if you have doubts about whether it baked in a hot car or the sun.
Using expired sunscreen can lead to a sunburn and irreversible lifetime skin damage
According to Neil Box PhD, Investigator at the University of Colorado Cancer Center and Assistant Professor in the Department of Dermatology at the School of Medicine,
"We’re still waiting for a definitive one-sunburn study to show us exactly how much melanoma risk increases with one blistering burn, but to the best of our knowledge, it seems like the answer is about 50 percent. One bad burn as a child makes you half-again more likely to develop melanoma as an adult,”
It's easy to make a mistake. Know that any tan or sun burn indicates that skin suffered permanent UV DNA induced damage.
Proof that sunscreen expires.
At my house, even though we have an in-house dermatologist, we've suffered the consequences of using sunscreen that's gone bad. We keep sunscreen in the kitchen 'junk drawer' for everyone to use. (In the past, it was a zinc plus chemical product because invisible high SPF zinc technology did not yet exist). In spring, we usually still have last season's sunscreen in that drawer. Yes, the container looks fine and within the expiration date, but it's old and we don't know who took it where last year.
For years, my earnest and hardworking husband would climb on the tractor to mow the spring high grass slathered with sunscreen and wearing a full brim ht. He would spend a beautiful spring Saturday driving back and forth on our country property.... and he’d get burnt.
"If you want a nice sunburn, use last year’s sunscreen!" - Dr. B
Now I keep a closer watch over the sunscreen supply at our house. I chuck any tube of questionable history before someone I love uses it.
Spring clean your sunscreens. Throw away any old sunscreens and start fresh. - Dermatologist Cynthia Bailey MD (who has done over 200,000 skin exams and knows what works and what doesn't with sunscreen).
The best sunscreens are invisible pure mineral zinc oxide based broad-spectrum 30+ high SPF products
What sunscreens does a dermatologist use to protect her family?
This glamorous photo is my family building that beefy redwood arbor for my daughter and her husband's new home. We spent a full day baking in the sun that included reflected light off the west facing stucco. Everyone, including my 18-month-old granddaughter was covered in Sheer Strength Pure Physical Sunscreens. Note the lack of burn or even tan! We use:
Sheer Strength Pure Physical SPF 50 Water Resistant Sunscreen for swimming and really sweaty and wet activities (like this day). Great for the back of the hands daily.
Sheer Strength Pure Physical SPF 50 Matte Tinted Sunscreen for my daily face protection. This sunscreen contains over 3.2% iron oxide to also help protect from visible and digital light known to also contribute to skin damage and skin pigment problems. Apply sunscreen first under your makeup on those days where you are wearing makeup!
Sheer Strength Pure Physical SPF 50 Invisible Creme Sunscreen for untinted daily wear face protection and ideal for daily neck and chest if exposed.
Sheer Strength Pure Physical SPF 50 Refresh Powder Sunscreen to touch up coverage when I wear makeup. This powder sunscreen contains over 3.2% iron oxide.
Click here to see my Sheer Strength Pure Physical Sunscreen Collection - after 35 years of practicing dermatology, I only use what works the best.
Reference: Department of Health and Human Services Food and Drug Administration 21 CFR Parts 201, 310, and 352 Sunscreen Drug Products for Over-the-Counter Human Use; Final Rules and Proposed Rules