Is expired sunscreen OK to use?

The sun's rays are no joke. It's better to toss expired sunscreen than take a chance.
The sun's rays are no joke. It's better to toss expired sunscreen than take a chance.
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There are extreme situations in life during which we want assurance that our protective devices are working. For example, a police officer needs to know that his or her bulletproof vest has been tested and works. Likewise, a deep-sea diver wants to be sure that his or her breathing apparatus is fully functional.

But some people tend to overlook risk when the danger isn't something tangible. A prime example of this is sun exposure. Sure, we might rub on a dollop or two of sunscreen if we're hitting the beach for the day, but how many of us really know if that lotion or spray is really working? It's an important question to ask. The sun's dangerous ultraviolet (UVA and UVB) rays can lead to burns, premature aging and skin cancer (including aggressive malignant melanoma). Playing fast and loose with skin protection isn't wise.

There are several ways to ensure you get maximum protection from your sunscreen. First, apply the lotion generously, often and at least 20 minutes before you go outside. Second, make sure your sunscreen isn't expired. Sunscreen loses its potency over a few years, reducing its sun protection factor (SPF). [source: Gibson].

Unfortunately, determining the expiration date of a sunscreen isn't always as easy as it is for other products, like food and medications. Some sunscreens have the date printed on the label, but not all, and including an expiration date is optional for manufacturers; they claim that their products will remain effective for two to three years [source: CBS News].

While it's helpful to know that proven products are on the market, the lack of definitive expiration dates can still cause confusion for consumers. Here are some ways to determine whether your sunscreen is likely still effective:

  • Look for an expiration date. Even though expiration dates aren't required, some sunscreen manufacturers choose to include them anyway.
  • Don't use any sunscreen past three years. If it's been more than three years since you purchased it (or, if you don't remember when you bought it), go ahead and throw it out. Just be sure to buy new sunscreen in its place. When you do, write the purchase date on the bottle so that you'll be able to better keep up with how long you've had it.
  • Replace sunscreen sooner if it's been stored in a hot place. Heat causes sunscreen to degrade and lose its potency. If you've been keeping yours in a car or beach bag, it's a good idea to buy a new supply sooner.
  • Get rid of any sunscreen that's changed in color, smell or consistency. Often, these are signs that the product is losing its effectiveness.
  • Don't buy in bulk. It's always good to have extra sunscreen on hand. But buying too many bottles at once increases your chances of having one that might degrade by the time you use it. Throwing away expired, unused bottles of sunscreen wastes money and is harmful to the environment.

Keep reading for lots more information on sun protection.

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