Here's How to Tell If Your Sunscreen Is Expired

Here's the lowdown on expired sunscreen and whether or not you should use it.

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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. Here's what you need to know.

Stores Sell Expired Sunscreen

You need to check your sunscreen for an expiration date in the store just like you'd check a gallon of milk. Unfortunately, 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. Expired sunscreen is not as effective (and in some cases, may not be effective at all), and using it could result in unexpected sunburns or skin damage.

How to Find Expiration Dates

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.

For example, on a bottle of Banana Boat sunscreen, 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 typically write dates in the US.

What to Do When There's No Date

Unfortunately, not all sunscreens have expiration dates, even though the FDA warns that sunscreens should have an expiration date on them. However, if the product doesn't have a date listed (or you can't find it), you can consider it good for three years after your purchase, assuming the store is not stocking expired sunscreen. To help you remember, mark the date of purchase on the bottle with a permanent marker.

If you can't remember when you bought a bottle of sunscreen and there's no date printed on it, the safest practice is to throw the bottle away since you can't be sure how long the product inside is good for or if it sustained any environmental damage that shortened its lifespan.

In addition to these common best practices, get rid of any sunscreen that's a different color, texture, or smell than it was when you first got it (even if the expiration date is still in the future). These telltale signs indicate that the sunscreen is old or was not stored effectively. Also, return any sunscreen that has an off smell, color, or texture on your first use, assuming you shook the bottle adequately to mix the product (mineral sunscreens always need to be shaken before applying).

Sunscreen Storage Tips

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.
  • Put it in a cooler.

How to Apply Sunscreen

Sunscreen application is just as important as the type of sunscreen you buy. 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. Be sure to follow the instructions on the sunscreen bottle, and don't forget to reapply! Remember to use sunscreen on your face, too!

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