There are a few different signs that will tell you if your SPF is too old to use.

By Nashia Baker
March 26, 2021
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Many everyday skin care products seem to have lasting formulas that can be used for years on end, and that includes everything from petrolatum jelly to some of your favorite body lotions. But does sunscreen expire? When it comes to this essential protective element, it actually does have a certain lifespan. Here, our skin care experts explain all of the signs that show your SPF needs to be replaced.

woman applying sunscreen to leg at beach
Credit: Ruslan Dashinsky / Getty Images

How long does sunscreen last?

When in doubt, always check your sunscreen bottle for an expiration date. Otherwise, "FDA regulations require sunscreens to maintain their efficacy for at least three years," says Dr. Elyse M. Love, MD, a New York City board-certified dermatologist. "If the expiration date is not on the bottle, then you can assume the product is good until three years after the purchase date." For safe measure, write down the purchase date on the sunscreen label if an expiration date isn't readily visible.

Do keep in mind that while each sunscreen contains agents to protect you from UV rays, the rest of the materials vary based on the brand. This means every product can have its own shelf life. "Water-based formulations always have a shorter life than oil-based formulations, but it is based on the entire ingredient list," Elina Fedotova, a cosmetic chemist, celebrity esthetician, and the owner of Elina Organics Spas, says. "As an organic formulator, my sunscreens, like Elina Organics Sun Day Sunscreen ($32, amazon.com), are based on Zinc Oxide (a long-lasting formulation), which is a physical broad-spectrum sunblock by reflecting UVA and UVB rays. Zinc Oxide is incredibly anti-bacterial by itself and can act as a natural preservative."

How will the formula change over time?

Since sunscreen does expire, you should keep a look out for visual cues that show it's getting old. New York City dermatologist Dr. Rachel Nazarian, MD, explains that expired sunscreen is usually watery or runny, its color changes, and it has an odd smell. If you notice any of these signs, she recommends throwing it out. Dr. Love adds that another indicator is that the sunscreen could also simply not work as well than in the past, indicating that this staple is past its prime.

Does expired sunscreen harm skin?

"Expired sunscreen means that a process of degradation has started," Fedotova says. This means that there's a possibility of mold or bacteria growing in the product, or oils are starting to spoil (caused by oxidation). She explains that the use of the old sunscreen could cause irritation, infection, and photo toxicity depending on the formula. At worst, Dr. Nazarian says applying expired sunscreen could look and feel normal, but it's actually not protecting you, which could increase risks of skin cancer and visual evidence of skin aging.

Which products do experts recommend?

As for Dr. Love's top over-the-counter pick, she suggests Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel Lotion Sunscreen ($16, ulta.com) since it applies smoothly and evenly on the skin. But since the face needs extra TLC because of its exposure to the sun more than other areas of the body, her favorite face-specific option is ISDIN Eryfotona Ageless Tinted Mineral Sunscreen ($66, amazon.com). "It is a tinted mineral sunscreen that is flattering on most skin shades," she explains. "It's not greasy and can be used by itself or under makeup."

"Mele No Sheer Sunscreen Oil Broad Spectrum ($24.49, target.com) is wonderful for darker skin types (developed for melanin-rich skin) and is broad-spectrum SPF 30 that absorbs easily without leaving a white residue," Dr. Nazarian explains of the sunscreen. "And Revision Skincare Intellishade TruPhysical ($76, dermstore.com) is one of my favorites because it's protective against free-radical damage and ultraviolet light via the antioxidants in the formula." The cream is also slightly tinted to blend well for varying skin tones. You can even take supplements, like Heliocare Daily Use Antioxidant Formula Capsules, pack of two, ($62, amazon.com), to shield skin from free-radical damage, but Dr. Nazarian still urges everyone to wear a topical sunscreen for full protection.

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