What happens if you use expired sunscreen?

Quick Answers

Using expired sunscreen can result in reduced effectiveness. The active ingredients may degrade over time, providing less UV protection. However, SPF testing has found that sunscreens are often still effective years after the expiration date. Do not rely on expired sunscreen as your primary protection. Check for changes in consistency, smell and packaging before use. Discard if any signs of deterioration.

Does Sunscreen Expire?

Yes, sunscreen does expire. Sunscreen products contain active ingredients that provide protection from UV radiation. Over time, these active ingredients can degrade and become less effective. The expiration date indicates how long the manufacturer guarantees the full effectiveness of the sunscreen formula.

The most common active ingredients found in sunscreens include:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • Octinoxate

Chemical breakdown of these active ingredients can occur when sunscreen is exposed to high heat or sunlight. The ingredients may oxidize and degrade faster under these conditions. Once expired, the level of UV protection will start to decrease over time.

How Long Does Sunscreen Last?

Most sunscreen products are designed to retain their labeled SPF level for at least 3 years. However, exact shelf life depends on the specific formula and active ingredients used. Here are some general guidelines on sunscreen expiration:

  • Bottles can last 1-3 years unopened
  • Opened bottles are only good for 1 year
  • Spray formulas may last only 6 months once opened
  • Single use packets lasts 1-2 years

Always check the expiration date printed on the packaging to determine if your sunscreen is still good. Discard any containers past the expiration date to ensure you get the full level of sun protection.

What Happens When You Use Expired Sunscreen?

Using expired sunscreen means you may not get the full SPF protection stated on the label. Over time, the stability and effectiveness of the active ingredients decline. This means the sunscreen may not adequately shield your skin from UVA/UVB radiation damage.

However, sunscreens do not typically expire immediately after the date. It is not like food that can spoil or make you ill. The active ingredients simply slowly break down over months or years after opening. So an expired sunscreen does still offer some protection.

Studies have even shown that some sunscreens are still over 90% effective years after expiration. But it is impossible to tell how much the SPF has reduced over time without laboratory testing.

To ensure you get the full sun protection promised, it is best to discard expired sunscreen. Using degraded formulas may lead to sunburns or skin damage from unblocked UV exposure.

Reduced Effectiveness

As sunscreen active ingredients degrade, the UV ray blocking power is reduced. This means more UV radiation can penetrate your skin and cause damage. Using an expired SPF 30 sunscreen may give you the protection of only an SPF 15 or less if it is too old.

Sunburn Risk

With less UV protection from a degraded formula, you have increased risk of sunburns, even when using an expired high SPF sunscreen. Burning can still occur from the unblocked portion of UV rays.

Premature Aging

UV exposure leads to free radical damage and breakdown of collagen in skin over time. Using expired sunscreens means your skin is not fully shielded from these aging effects of the sun’s rays. This can lead to wrinkles, age spots, and skin cancer.

Inadequate UVA Protection

Expired sunscreens may retain some UVB protection but have severely reduced UVA protection. UVA rays penetrate deeper into skin and contribute to premature aging. Inadequate UVA screening can allow significant skin damage to occur.

How to Tell if Your Sunscreen is Expired

Check these signs to determine if your sunscreen is expired and needs to be replaced:

  • Passed expiration date
  • Change in color or smell
  • Formula is no longer smooth, separated, or clumpy
  • Packaging is damaged – leaks, cracks, or corrosion
  • Sunscreen seems less effective requiring frequent reapplication

If you notice any changes to the formula, discard it immediately. Also get rid of sunscreen containers that are past their expiration date for optimal UV protection.

Does Expired Sunscreen Become Toxic?

No, expired sunscreens do not become toxic or dangerous to use. The ingredients simply degrade slowly over time, reducing effectiveness. The FDA requires safety testing on sunscreen formulas to ensure they are non-toxic.

Preservatives are added to sunscreen to prevent bacterial or fungal growth after opening. This means expired sunscreen won’t harbor harmful germs or “spoil” like food products. The formula may change in smell, color, or texture but it does not become immediately dangerous.

However, it is still advisable to discard expired sunscreen. While not toxic, degraded formulas provide suboptimal protection. It is impossible to judge how significant the loss of effectiveness is in an expired product.

Should You Use Expired Sunscreen in a Pinch?

It’s best not to rely on expired sunscreen as your primary protection against UV rays. However, if caught without a new bottle, using an expired sunscreen is better than going without any SPF.

Studies have shown 3-year old sunscreen formulas often still provide more than 90% of labeled SPF protection. So while not ideal, applying expired sunscreen is better than applying nothing at all if you’ll be in the sun.

In a pinch, check the sunscreen closely. If there are no changes to color, scent, or texture, expired sunscreen can provide reasonable protection temporarily. Reapply often and seek shade when possible. Discard the expired lotion as soon as you can replace it.

How to Store Sunscreen Correctly

To get the longest usable life from your sunscreen, store it properly when not in use:

  • Keep out of direct sunlight and heat to avoid accelerating ingredient breakdown
  • Do not leave in hot cars for extended time
  • Store in a cool, dry place ideally around room temperature
  • Avoid extremes of cold or heat
  • Keep in original packaging or bottles that protect from light damage

With proper storage, most sunscreen products last 1-3 years before expiring. Keeping them out of sunlight and temperature extremes gives you the longest use from each bottle.

How to Properly Dispose of Expired Sunscreen

Once a sunscreen formula has expired, dispose of it through these methods:

  • Place liquid sunscreen bottles in the regular trash
  • Break any aerosol cans by wrapping in a bag and putting in trash
  • Do not open or cut aerosol cans before disposing
  • Bring expired sunscreen to local household hazardous waste collection sites if available
  • Do not pour down drains or release outdoors

Expired sunscreens contain chemicals that can be harmful to waterways and wildlife in large quantities. Follow local regulations for proper disposal through regular trash pickup or hazardous waste collection.

How to Check Expiration Dates

To determine if your sunscreen is expired or still usable, check these parts of the packaging:

  • Bottom or top of bottle – May be stamped or printed with expiration month/year
  • Box or carton – Expiration is often on outer packaging as well as bottle
  • Foil packets – Expiration date is frequently printed on individual use packets
  • Inside pamphlet or folds – Multi-page packaging may list the expiration date somewhere on the material

Some brands also list the manufactured date, allowing you to calculate how long the sunscreen is designed to remain effective. If no expiration is visible, discard sunscreen after 1-3 years to be safe.

Can You Use Sunscreen After Expiration Date?

It is not recommended to rely on sunscreen past its expiration date as your primary UV protection. The expired formula likely has reduced effectiveness so your skin is not fully safeguarded.

However, studies have shown that sunscreen of up to 4 years old still provides some decent protection, though less than when originally produced. So using an expired sunscreen is preferable to not applying any in a pinch.

If you do use expired sunscreen, be vigilant about reapplying often and limiting direct sun exposure. Discard the sunscreen as soon as possible and replace it with a new, non-expired bottle for reliable protection.

Can Expired Sunscreen Make You Sick?

No, using expired sunscreen cannot directly make you sick. The ingredients in sunscreen are not the type to harbor infectious bacteria or other microbes that could cause illness.

Preservatives are added to sunscreen formulas specifically to prevent microbial growth and spoilage once the bottle is opened. So expired sunscreen does not become unsafe in the same way as contaminated food.

The only risk is reduced effectiveness against UV rays. The chemicals themselves do not degrade into toxic substances. Discard expired sunscreen for optimal protection, but it will not cause infectious disease.

Does Sunscreen Lose Effectiveness After Opening?

Sunscreen can start to lose some effectiveness once you open the bottle and begin using it. Exposure to air and light can accelerate the breakdown of active ingredients over time.

For this reason, opened sunscreen generally expires faster than unopened bottles stored under ideal conditions. Here is how long opened sunscreen typically lasts:

  • Lotions – 12 months
  • Sprays – 6 months
  • Creams – 18 months
  • Gels – 18 months
  • Sticks – 2 years

Write the date you opened the sunscreen on the bottle. Discard within the time periods above for best protection. Keeping it sealed between uses helps minimize air exposure.

The Bottom Line

It is always best to use a non-expired sunscreen within the labeled shelf life. However, in a pinch, applying expired sunscreen is better than no SPF at all. Test shows some effectiveness remains for years, though reduced compared to when new.

Check bottles for changes in odor, color, and texture. If the formula seems compromised, discard immediately. Store sunscreen properly to optimize shelf life. Replace with a fresh bottle once expired for full sun protection.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can sunscreen expire?

Yes, sunscreen can expire and become less effective over time. The active ingredients that filter UV rays can start to degrade, especially when exposed to sunlight and heat. Shelf lives vary by formula, but most sunscreen expires within 1-3 years.

Does expired sunscreen provide any protection?

Expired sunscreen does still offer some protection from UV damage, though likely less than the labeled SPF level. Studies show 3-4 year old sunscreen often still blocks over 90% of UVB rays. But it is impossible to determine actual effectiveness without lab testing.

Can I use sunscreen that expired last year?

It’s not recommended to rely on sunscreen that has passed its expiration date as your primary UV protection. However, using expired sunscreen from the previous year is better than no sunscreen if you have no alternatives. Replace it with a new bottle as soon as possible.

How do you dispose of old sunscreen?

To dispose of expired liquid sunscreen, place the sealed bottle in your regular household trash. For aerosol spray cans, wrap in a bag before tossing to prevent leaks. Do not open cans or pour sunscreen down drains. Check for hazardous waste collection events in your area if available.

Should you throw away sunscreen after a certain time?

Once opened, sunscreen should be discarded within 12-18 months for lotions and creams, and 6 months for sprays. Unopened bottles can typically last 2-3 years before their expiration date. Always discard immediately once past the printed expiration date on the packaging.

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