Yes, sunscreen expires. Sunscreen has an expiration date at least three years from the date of manufacture. The FDA regulates sunscreen and according to their rulings, sunscreen must be effective for at least three years. So every bottle of sunscreen sold in the United States must legally have a shelf life of three years from the time of production but it may also be longer.

Chemical Sunscreens vs Mineral Sunscreens

While three years is a legal requirement set out by the FDA to sunscreen manufacturers, that’s the minimum time required. There are, however, two different kinds of sunscreen you can purchase and their composition does affect their lifespan.

Chemical Sunscreens

These sunscreens are the ones mandated to last 3 years by the FDA. Not every bottle of chemical sunscreen will have an expiration date on it and if it does not it’s still required to last that three years. Chemical sunscreens are the lotion type sunscreens that you rub onto your skin so they can absorb in. The chemicals that make them work are not stable which is why they will break down over time. The breakdown can occur faster if it’s stored in the light or in a hot place.

Mineral Sunscreens

Mineral sunscreens typically last longer than 3 years. First and foremost, look for an expiration date to double check this. Some mineral sunscreens are made with additives that may affect how they work. That said, because they rely on stable mineral compounds like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to protect you from UV rays, they can last much longer. The minerals themselves never go bad. That said, that doesn’t mean mineral sunscreen never goes bad. Dispersants and preservatives in the formula can and will expire and reduce the effectiveness of a mineral sunscreen. So while technically zinc oxide never expires, it may still fail as a sunscreen if it’s too old.

Where is the Expiration Date on Sunscreen?

If your sunscreen bottle has an expiration date it will be located on the side or bottom in most cases. Not all sunscreen feature printed expiration dates. These can be hard to locate sometimes and may be printed in light colored text near the seam of the label or the bottom of the bottle itself. Tubes of sunscreen often have it stamped into the plastic at the sealed seam of the tube. If there is no date present you can either assume it will adhere to the three year lifespan if it’s from the US and has been stored correctly.

If you don’t know how long the sunscreen has already been around to know how close you are to three years, you can contact the manufacturer. The SKU number on the bar code or a serial number on the label should be able to tell them the date of manufacture. This may be easier to figure out with some brands than others, however.

Some manufacturers use codes. This is the case with Banana Boat. Check the bottom or side of a bottle of Banana Boat and you will likely find a 7 to 9 digit code that may end with letters. The first two digits should indicate the year of manufacture and the next three will cover the day.

For example: 21030TT

If this code was on your sunscreen you could read it as 21 030 TT. In this case 21 is the year or 2021. 030 would be the day or the 30th day of the year. The remainder, whether letters or numbers, is just manufacturing code that is unimportant. So this sunscreen would have been made on January 30th 2021 and should, therefore, be good until January 30th 2024.

Signs of Expired Sunscreen

There are some ways to tell if sunscreen may no longer be safe to use, even if you do not know the expiration date.

  • Mineral sunscreen may be gritty. If it feels like sand or chunky when you try to apply it, there’s a good chance it has gone bad. This is due to the chemicals in the sunscreen called dispersants going bad. They are what allow you to spread the minerals across your skin to use it as a sunscreen. When they break down, the minerals will clump and the sunscreen will be less effective or maybe unusable.
  • Chemical sunscreens may get watery. If the compounds inside have degraded too badly because of heat or age, you may find the consistency is less like lotion and more like dirty water. It may come out with chunks and a very thin liquid.
  • Color changes. This can happen to both chemical or mineral sunscreens. If it was pure white when you first bought it but is now gray, yellow or any other color it has definitely gone bad and may have also started breeding bacteria.
  • Odor. Not all sunscreens have compounds added to give them a familiar and pleasant smell but some do. Coconut is very common in sunscreen, for instance. That said, if your sunscreen is smelling a little off, especially if it has a sour or distinctly chemical smell, then it may have expired.

Is It Safe to Use Expired Sunscreen?

It’s not recommended to use expired sunscreen. You may feel some sunscreen is better than none since unprotected sun exposure leads to skin cancer, premature aging and more and you want some sun protection. And in most cases it’s probably safe from a health standpoint to use expired sunscreen. As in, the sunscreen itself will probably not harm you. That said, if it smells bad or has an unusual color, it’s possible it could be unhealthy.

The bigger issue with expired sunscreen is effectiveness. It’s likely that expired sunscreen no longer has the ability to protect you from the sun’s rays. It may offer some minimal protection, but there is no way to know for sure just how effective it is, if at all. For that reason it would not make sense to use it.

If the mixture is no longer properly emulsified, then you may be unable to even spread it on your flesh properly, leaving potential gaps in coverage. If the sunscreen has begun to breed bacteria you could not only be unprotected from the sun but you could put yourself at the risk of things like rashes or infections.

How To Keep Sunscreen From Expiring Early

Sunscreen needs to be stored correctly to prevent early expiration. The thing about that three years is that it can 100% expire well before then if it was stored poorly. Here are some things to watch out for.

  • Heat. This will likely cause the most damage to sunscreen. Sunscreen stored in a hot place can break down in months not years. Many of the active ingredients are very volatile in heat and will degrade quickly. This is something to keep in mind when buying sunscreen at the end of the season when it goes on sale or from warehouse sales. If the sunscreen has been stored for the whole summer in a hot warehouse or storeroom you may end up buying it when it is already ineffective even though it’s never even been opened yet..
  • Light. Most sunscreens are in opaque packaging, but not all of them. This is extremely dangerous as light, especially direct sunlight, will destroy sunscreen as well, especially open sunlight. Not to mention light often accompanies heat.
  • Humidity. Humidity usually implies heat, but moisture can enter a poorly sealed container and that can both degrade the compound as well as breed bacteria.
  • Air. Many of the active ingredients in chemical sunscreen will oxidize if they are not properly sealed. This will destroy their effectiveness over time.
  • Cleanliness. If your sunscreen bottle gets messy on top, clean it off before you put it away. If you allow sunscreen residue to build up and dry out it can breed bacteria. That can get into the bottle and contaminate the entire thing, potentially reducing its lifespan. Likewise, and this is more common with children, if someone applies the sunscreen with dirty hands and the bacteria/dirt from their fingers remains on the lid or gets sucked back into the container, it can contaminate the entire mix.

The Bottom Line

Sunscreen can and will expire. The FDA has stated that all sunscreen must be effective for at least three years from date of manufacture, but this will only be applicable if it’s been stored correctly. Chemical sunscreens tend to not last as long as mineral ones, but both can degrade in a variety of ways. If your sunscreen feels, smells or looks strange, even if it’s before the expiration date, you should replace it as it is most likely compromised and will no longer be effective.