Here's the lowdown on how to tell if sunscreen is expired before you pack it on your next trip.

By Claudia Fisher
July 19, 2018

Yes, your sunscreen can expire. In fact, most beauty products have expiration dates somewhere on their label, but you might not realize it because they can look a little different than the expiration dates you're more accustomed to on food. It's important not only to check the sunscreens you already have in your bathroom cabinets, but also to scope out the labels on sun-protection products before you even buy them to make sure the formulas still work.

An investigation by Good Morning America found that some popular stores–including Target, Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens locations in Chicago, DC, LA and New Jersey–were still selling sunscreens past their expiration dates, unbeknownst to sun-fearing customers. After visiting a total of 17 stores, the GMA team discovered 68 expired bottles still on the stores' shelves despite policies to make sure expired products don't remain out for sale. 

While most of the stores highlighted in GMA's story have responded that they're looking into this major concern, it's still important to be an informed consumer and look out for yourself–especially with something as critical to your health as sun protection.

Sunscreen expiration dates come in different forms, and sometimes they're a little hard to decipher. Some are typed out plainly and directly in places like the bottom of an aerosol can, while others are embossed on the top of plastic bottles as a [less-than-intuitive] set of numbers.

On a bottle of Banana Boat sunscreen, for example, GMA explained that the first two numbers represent the year the product was manufactured, while the next three indicate the exact day of the year.

So, if you saw a number starting with "17364," that date would be December 30, 2017. It's not exactly how we write dates typically in the US.

Not all sunscreens even have expiration dates, written confusingly or simply, on them. The FDA warns that sunscreens should have an expiration date on them, but if they don't, you should consider one good for three years after your purchase. If you can't remember when you bought a sunscreen and there's no date printed on it, the safest practice is to throw that one away since you can't be sure how long the product inside is good for or if it's sustained any environmental damage that would have shortened its lifespan.

Sunscreens, like a lot of products, need to be stored in certain conditions so they don't go bad prematurely. The FDA says you should avoid putting your sunscreen in direct sunlight–a hazard of probably every place you're toting your SPF this summer. Worry not, though! The FDA has three tips to protect your sunscreen: Wrap your product in a towel, keep it in the shade, or put it in a cooler.

Most doctors recommend putting on at least broad-spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen 30 minutes before you go outside, then reapplying every two hours and after sweating or getting wet. In addition to these common best practices, now you know to check your sunscreens for expiration dates and to get rid of anything that's a different color, texture, or smell than it was when you first got it because those are signs it was not stored effectively.

And not to keep ringing alarm bells, but did you know some companies lie about how much SPF is really in their sunscreens? The more you know...