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Does sunscreen expire?
Sunscreen absolutely expires. The active ingredients in sunscreen are usually given about a 2 -3 year expiration window. The FDA has guidelines for any product that contains active ingredients. The only way a product with active ingredients can go without an expiration date is if the company can prove the product is stable for over 3 years. The concern for sunscreen is that if it can only show the ingredients are stable for a period of about 2-3 years, then it is possible that when you go to apply it after the expiration date, it may not be as effective to block UV. If there is no expiration date on the bottle, be cautious with any product over 3 years old.
How are expiration dates determined?
When an application for FDA approval is submitted for a drug, stability testing is submitted by the company as a part of the approval process. It is important to note that this only occurs for products with an active ingredient. These are products with an ingredient that has stated therapeutic effect. Active ingredients must stay stable in term of “strengh, quality, and purity” when stored under the conditions listed on the label.
For products without an active ingredient, such as moisturizers, shampoos, etc., a different metric is considered called ‘shelf life’. Shelf life is based on determining how long the product is expected to be safe to use given the fact that it will be exposed to air, fingers, applicators, etc. (FDA)
When it comes to sunscreen, the active ingredients that determine the SPF of the product are intended to provide a therapeutic benefit- protecting the skin from excess UV. Beyond the expiration date, the product may not be as effective to do so. It may give a false sense of security when exposed to UV.
How long does sunscreen typically last?
Most sunscreens typically last about 2-3 years. After this point, they may become both less active as far as blocking UV and the product might start to take on a different consistency making it not spread as evenly when applied. Also, remember that other factors could impact the stability of your sunscreen. The expiration dates and effective SPF on the bottle are based usually on ideal conditions of storing the bottle at room temperature avoiding extreme temperatures and keeping the bottle capped and closed to avoid contamination. If you store your sunscreen in hot or warm environments or forget to close the cap, these factors could impact how much faster your sunscreen could expire.
What are some signs your sunscreen is expired?
I love this question becomes it gives me the opportunity to remind people that if they were using their sunscreen appropriately, it would not have a chance to expire! Remember that most guidelines still suggest wearing about a shot glass full or one ounce of sunscreen daily. Most sunscreen bottles are about 3 to 5 oz. Technically, if we used sunscreen appropriately we would empty at least a bottle a week.
That being said, I understand that not many people do this. If there are any obvious changes in color or consistency of the sunscreen, it has likely expired. Color changes could indicate a breakdown of ingredients or potential contamination. Consistency changes can mean that the product’s ingredients are separating and less likely to provide the effective SPF by not spreading evenly or that some ingredients are also starting to break down.
Are expiration dates written on sunscreen containers?
Yes and no. Most sunscreens have or are supposed to have dates written on them. If they do not, be sure to take a Sharpie and write the date you open the container on the side to track how long it is used.
There are a few other ways to find sunscreen expiration dates on the container depending on the brand.
Some brands are very clear, stamping the date in ink on the main bottle or tube OR stamping it into the end of the tube. These dates will be in the traditional mm/yyyy or mm/yy format.
Some brands may stamp the date into the tube, however, the imprinted numbers may be difficult to decipher.
Other brands may include the date of manufacture on the label, leaving the consumer to decide based on a 3 year stability time table. Banana Boat utilizes this format. To add to the challenge for Banana Boat, it turns out their format is different than the tradition month/year format. If you find a number on the bottom of a bottle or can or stamped into the end of a tube, then the first 5 numbers represent the date of manufacture. The first two numbers represent the year of manufacture and the next 3 numbers reflect the number of days into the year the product was made. So 21023 as the first five numbers would mean that the product was manufactured on the 23rd day of 2021 or January 23, 2021. Here’s another example, 19333 would mean that the product was manufactured on the 333rd day of 2019 or November 29, 2019 (if it was a leap year it would have been the 28th:)
And, some products may have a symbol similar to this one:
The open jar with a nnM format means that the product is good for ‘nn’ number of months (M) after opening the container. Hence, 24M means the product is stable for 24 months after opening.
What should someone do with expired sunscreen?
This is a challenging question since there is no easy answer. The best answer I can provide is that if you find you have an expired sunscreen, then it was not used the right way. Re-evaluate how you use sunscreen and think of how much you are using and whether it is enough to have been using the same bottle for 2-3 years. Most sunscreens come in plastic bottles simply because it maintains the stability of the product. If the bottle is almost empty, check to see if your area recycles the type of resin the bottle is made from to put it in the recycling bin. If it is still a pretty full bottle this is where I say that making the right purchasing decision makes for a better solution when it comes time to dispose of the product. Try to avoid purchasing chemical sunscreens to limit how much they end up in the waterways!
The FDA has guidelines on medication disposal here.