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Does expired sunscreen work?

We get it. It’s not always easy to get your family to use sunscreen regularly. That’s why you still have that huge bottle of sunscreen from three summers ago taking up space underneath the bathroom sink. The expiration date came and went ages ago, yet you can’t part with it. Does expired sunscreen work, or is using it a waste of time (or a risk)?

Does expired sunscreen work?

We hate to break it to you, but once sunscreen expires, it starts losing its effectiveness. What’s more, as ingredients in sunscreen start to break down over time, SPF 55 can turn into SPF 15 or even less.

There is a chance that expired sunscreen still works, but you can’t tell for sure, or know how well it will work — which isn’t ideal for something that is meant to protect you from skin-damaging rays.

The reason why sunscreens have expiration dates is that most sunscreen companies put their sunscreens through a set of stability tests. These tests, done over months and years, determine the shelf-stability of the sunscreens. It’s best to follow the expiry date on your bottle, as beyond that point, there’s no guarantee it will work as intended.

How long does sunscreen last?

Sunscreen isn’t like cans of baked beans you have saved up for emergencies; there’s no wiggle room with the expiration date, and once it’s come and gone, the product will no longer be as effective. Toss out any sun care products you’ve had for more than three years. After that time, the components will start to break down (this is true for both mineral and chemical sunscreens).

This also depends on how you’ve been storing your sunscreens. If it’s been sitting at room temperature away from direct sunlight, it probably will last as long as the expiry date states. However, if you've been storing it at higher temperatures (like in your car’s glove box, or by the windowsill), the sunscreen is more likely to break down faster.

Problems for sensitive skin

Expired sunscreen can also cause skin irritation. People with sensitive skin are likely to have heightened  reactions, but anyone can experience side effects:

  • Red, itchy skin
  • Rash
  • Swelling
  • Burning sensation

Does expired sunscreen work when it looks weird?

Sometimes, sunscreen stops working well before it has met its shelf life. An easy way to tell something’s off is by looking at the product. Often, a sunscreen that has turned will look different:

  • Separated liquids
  • Greasy application
  • Grit like sand
  • Clumps
  • Stinky smell
  • Yellow color or a different color from when you first bought it

These changes can happen if sunscreen is exposed to heat (raise your hand if you’ve brought a bottle to the beach and let it sit in the sun for hours) or if dirty hands touch the cap often. A good rule of thumb: If your sunscreen’s consistency looks questionable, discard it. 

Does expired sunscreen work? Our final answer

As you get into the habit of using sun protection every day, you won’t have to worry about this. If you’re doing things right, you should go through your sunscreens fairly quickly and regularly.

Does expired sunscreen work? Probably not, and you don’t want to put your skin through that ordeal anyway! Treat your skin kindly with high-quality sun care instead.