If you’ve ever dug through your beach bag at the beginning of the summer, only to discover the remnants of your last trip, you might find yourself wondering: How long do sunscreens last anyway? To get the most bang for your buck, you likely want to use all the products you have on hand—but there are some important things to know about what might cause sunscreen to expire and give you less sun protection than you need. So, before you use the rest of that old bottle, read on.
First, let’s review the basics of SPF: Sunscreen is an essential tool to protect your skin from harmful UV rays that can cause sun damage.* If you're wondering about what type of sunscreen to add to your routine, there are two main types: mineral (aka physical) and chemical. Both help protect your skin from the sun’s rays*, but they work differently. Physical sunscreens use natural ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to reflect harmful UV rays away from your skin. The active ingredients in chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays and chemically altering them.¹ The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all sunscreens to have an expiration date unless the manufacturer’s testing proves that the sunscreen will remain stable for at least three years.²
Regardless of when you purchased the product or the date stamped on the container, it’s important to know whether the sunscreen you’re using is actually working to protect your skin from the sun’s rays. That’s because when sunscreen passes its expiration date (or the three-year mark), it may no longer protect you from the sun's harmful rays. That can increase your risk of sunburn, premature aging, and skin cancer. Here are some signs your sunscreen has seen, well, sunnier days:
Changes in texture. A watery texture may mean your sunscreen is over-the-hill. When sunscreen becomes grainy or any other off texture, it’s probably time to toss it.
Change in color. Most sunscreens are white or a light cream color. If it’s discolored, that’s another sign to swap it for some new sunscreen.
Change in smell. If the odor seems “off,” it’s probably time to ditch it.
Expiration date. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people forget to check the expiration date. It’s usually stamped on the outside of the container. If there isn’t an expiration date on the bottle, you can assume that the sunscreen is expired if it’s been three years since you purchased it. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind regarding expiration dates:
According to the FDA, the three-year rule begins from the date of purchase.
The date on the sunscreen bottle assumes you’ll properly store the bottle, which means not in your car or the summer toys storage bin on the patio (more on where to keep your sunscreen below)—basically, any place where it can get overheated.
Here’s the bottom line: If you’re applying your sunscreen daily and as directed, at least every two hours when in the sun, you’ll use it up long before it’s past its shelf life.
Like all products with expiration dates, sunscreen should be stored as directed. For most products, that means in a temperature-controlled space, like your medicine cabinet. Excessive heat and direct sunlight can cause your sunscreen to break down more rapidly.
When you’re in the sun, wrap your sunscreen in a towel to keep it out of direct sunlight or store it in the shade. If you’re out for the day, tuck your sunscreen in your cooler. And keep the cap firmly on.³
Sunscreen forms a protective barrier on your skin. However, different types of activities can remove sunscreen more quickly, including swimming, toweling off, and sweating. How many hours sunscreen lasts can depend on what you’re doing. As a general rule, apply sunscreen about 15-30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply every two hours, after you swim or sweat or after you towel off.⁴ As a general rule of thumb, apply according to the directions on the bottle. Be sure to reapply to areas of skin that are exposed to the sun. You may need to apply to areas under your clothes, depending on how well the clothes protect you from UV rays and how long you’re outdoors.
Speaking of reapplication, you might wonder, how long does sunscreen last on the face? Simple: The same rules for below the neck also apply to above the neck. Remember, your face is generally more exposed than other parts of your body. To boost your sun protection, enlist the help of your favorite hat and sunglasses.
Is your expired sunscreen still good? Most likely, no. If you use expired sunscreen, you’re probably not getting the sun protection your skin needs (and deserves!). This increases your chances of sunburn, signs of premature aging, and skin cancer. If you need to ask yourself whether expired sunscreen is still okay to use, it’s probably best to toss it. After all, sunscreen’s job is to protect your skin from harmful UV radiation. If you can’t be sure it's doing that, there’s no reason to keep it.
How long sunscreen lasts after the expiration date may depend on how it’s stored. Sunscreen in the container—opened or not—still degrades. That’s likely accelerated, of course, if you leave it in the sun or the heat, be it by the pool or in your car.
Storing your sunscreen in a cool, dark, dry place helps it keep its effectiveness until it reaches its expiration date. But don’t risk using expired sunscreen. Remember, the point of wearing sunscreen is to ward off accelerated aging and skin cancer!
Whether you’ve yet to break the seal, if your sunscreen has reached its best-by date, toss it! It’s just not worth the “what if.”
Sunscreen, like any skincare product, isn’t one-size-fits-all. Some are better for acne-prone skin, oily skin, and dry skin. “Ideal” sunscreen should protect from both UVA and UVB rays and be tactilely pleasing, so you’re keen to wear it. Here are some tips to find the best sunscreen for you:
Choose a sunscreen for your skin type—whether that’s acne-prone, dry, oily, normal, or combination skin.
Choose a sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection. Broad-spectrum sunscreens will protect you from both UVA and UVB rays.
Choose a sunscreen with an adequate SPF. Most dermatology providers recommend broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30+ and diligent application to protect against the sun.⁵
Designed by dermatologists, the sunscreen by Curology is a no-clog, grease-free lotion that blends well, absorbs quickly, and gives skin a fresh finish so you can face the day confidently (more on this later). If you’re looking for additional recommendations, check out these 10 sunscreens you can use to protect every skin type.
Practice going that extra mile to protect your skin. Your future self will thank you! To help, here are some of our favorite tips for a good sunscreen routine.⁶
Wash your face first. While this is a bit impractical when you’re out and about, it should be part of your morning routine before applying sunscreen.
Use a sunscreen that blends well and leaves no white cast. Sunscreen that goes on white and dries clear can help you see if you’ve applied enough on all parts of your skin.
Use enough sunscreen. That’s enough to fill a full shot glass—or about one ounce—for your body.
Reapply frequently. We hit on this already, but we can’t say it enough. The SPF on your sunscreen is only correct if you apply as directed, at least every two hours or immediately after swimming, sweating, or toweling off.
Wear sun-protective clothing. Clothing with an SPF factor is a great, easy way to boost your protection from the sun.
Use a water-resistant sunscreen. Even if you don’t plan on swimming, if you’re like most people, you’ll still sweat when you’re out in the sun.
The sunscreen by Curologyis a mineral-based SPF 30 formula that was designed by dermatologists for acne-prone skin (but great for all skin types). The non-comedogenic formula has a silky, non-greasy texture and blends well to leave no white cast, making it perfect for everyday wear. The key ingredient in Curology's broad-spectrum physical sunscreen is zinc oxide (9.4%), a mineral sunscreen filter that reflects UVA and UVB rays off the skin's surface, reducing the risk of sun damage. Plus, it's also reef-friendly!
The sunscreen by Curology was designed to work with all our Curology products, but it’s only available through a Curology subscription. Sign up for a 30-day trial and add the sunscreen to your order for free (just pay $4.95 + tax to cover shipping and handling).*
Changes in texture. A watery texture may mean your sunscreen is over-the-hill.
Change in color. Most sunscreens are white or a light cream color.
Change in smell. If the odor seems “off,” it’s probably time to ditch it.
Expiration date. It’s usually stamped on the outside of the container.
Like all products with expiration dates, sunscreen should be stored as directed. Excessive heat and direct sunlight can cause your sunscreen to break down more rapidly. When you’re in the sun, wrap your sunscreen in a towel or store it in the shade. And keep the cap firmly on.
Sunscreen forms a protective barrier on your skin. Different types of activities can remove sunscreen more quickly (swimming, toweling off, and sweating). As a general rule, apply sunscreen about 15-30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply every two hours.
If you use expired sunscreen, you’re probably not getting the sun protection your skin needs. This increases your chances of sunburn, signs of premature aging, and skin cancer.
How long sunscreen lasts after the expiration date may depend on how it’s stored. Sunscreen in the container—opened or not—still degrades. That’s likely accelerated if you leave it in the sun or the heat, be it by the pool or in your car.
Sambandan, D. R., & Ratner, D. Sunscreens: an overview and update. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2011).
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Sunscreen: How to Help Protect Your Skin from the Sun. (2021).
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Sunscreen: How to Help Protect Your Skin from the Sun. Ibid.
Diffey, BL. When Should Sunscreen Be Reapplied? Journal of Academy of Dermatology. (2001, December 1.)
American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQS. (n.d.).
American Academy of Dermatology. How to Apply Sunscreen (n.d.).
*Sunscreen cannot prevent all harm from UV rays.
* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.
Kristen Jokela, NP-C