Don’t get caught with expired sunscreen.

By Lindsay Tigar
Updated April 10, 2020
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Credit: Aleksej Sarifulin/Getty Images

After a long, grim winter and the rainy days of spring, summer arrives with new hope, blazing sun, and a reminder that you need to up your sunscreen game. As you’re sorting through last year’s beach bag, you may wonder: How long does sunscreen really last? And how do we know if it’s expired? When is it time to recycle the plastic—and refill our sunscreen stash?

The answer from the Food & Drug Administration is pretty clear: All shelf-stable products, including sunscreen products, typically have a life of three years from their manufacturing date. This can be super tricky to remember or discern, since most brands conceal expiration info in a light-colored font on their bottle. When in doubt, Marnie Nussbaum, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist, recommends writing the date you purchased that best sunscreen on the bottle with a permanent marker so you can keep up with the three-year time frame.

Though three years seems like a reasonable enough period in which to use up a bottle of sunscreen, it’s not without caveats. How well you take care of your sunscreen, where you store it, and how often you apply a layer all play a factor, too. Here, dermatologists provide the 101 on sunscreen expiration and when you should go ahead and recycle the bottle.

If sunscreen appears separated, toss it

While all sunscreens can separate from their base, how it looks changes based on what formula you’ve selected. There are two types of sunscreens on the market: chemical sunscreens and those with mineral-based ingredients. Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist, says if you squeeze out a chemical sunscreen and it comes out as a white clump surrounded by water and oil, give it a quick shake and try again. If it still comes out looking like salad dressing, it’s time to recycle it.

Mineral sunscreens, which until 2013 were called sunblocks and contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, may take longer to lose their form. “These are much more shelf-stable, but once combined with other chemicals and base ingredients to improve cosmetic elegance, these sunscreens can also expire," says Dr. Shainhouse.

If it’s clumpy, toss it

Think about the dairy section of your go-to grocer when you analyze the consistency of your sunscreen. You should always have a formula that looks like cream cheese—not cottage cheese. Any type of clumpy, watery, grainy, or oily texture is a clear sign it’s time to toss.

“While it’s likely the base that is breaking down, you cannot know if the protective ability of the sunscreen chemicals has broken down, as well, making it ineffective,” Dr. Shainhouse says.

If it smells, toss it

For many people, catching a whiff of sunscreen will bring them straight back to the glory days of summer, sailing on the sea, jumping in the pool, or going for one hike after another. So if you snap open your product and it doesn’t smell great? Dr. Shainhouse says it could be because of bacteria that’s growing inside (yuck!) or the breakdown of chemicals within the base. “Because you cannot know if the protective sunscreen chemicals have deteriorated, it’s best to toss out this bottle and splurge for a new one,” she says.

If your bottle has been compromised, toss it

Even though you asked your partner at least three times to grab the sunscreen before your pup got it, they didn’t—and now there’s a big hole in the bottle. Though it can be frustrating, especially if it’s a new bottle, Dr. Shainhouse says any damage to the exterior is reason enough to throw it out. So no matter if it was Fido’s fault or the bottle is simply brittle or cracked, opt to toss and replace.

If you left it open overnight, toss it

If you forgot to close the cap on the sunscreen, you may need to run out on day two of your vacation to buy a replacement, according to Dr. Nussbaum. When the sunscreen is open (or frequently opened and closed for periods of time), it can allow bacteria to build up inside. This weakens the lotion so it can’t offer the sun protection we need.

If the color looks different, toss it

Sunscreen should be mostly white or mostly opaque says Dennis Gross, MD, a dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon. So when you see shades of yellow or off-white, it could be an indication that your product has faded. “There is a possibility that the sunscreen is no longer at the same potency, so wearing it could leave you open to sun damage and at a higher risk for skin cancer,” Dr. Gross says.

If you keep it in a wet, warm place, toss it

When you’re not using your sunscreen, dermatologist Erum Ilyas, MD, MBE, FAAD, says it’s vital to store it in a cool, dry place. Because the three-year shelf life is based on having ideal conditions like these, if you keep it somewhere warm or wet, the sunscreen will lose its potency. More to the point, Dr. Ilyas says it can speed up the expiration process, so you could be left with a bottle that lasts less than a year.

If you’re using sunscreen effectively, expiration dates shouldn’t matter

By shouldn’t matter, we mean you should never have to wonder if your sunscreen has expired, since it should be fairly easy to go through an entire bottle in a few weeks, particularly in the summer or on an outdoors-intensive vacation. As Ashley Magovern, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, puts it, if you’re following all of the sun protection rules, it’s likely you’ll go through several bottles on vacation and be through your stash by the time fall arrives.

So how much is enough? Dr. Magovern says a good rule to follow is one ounce per application for the body, which looks like a shot glass-full or a golf ball-size dollop. You’ll probably need one-fourth of that for your face, so a few dime-sized proportions should do.