When Does Sunscreen Expire?
When summertime arrives and you begin to spend long days out in the sun, you reach for last year’s bottle of Banana Boat or Coppertone. And then you begin to wonder: When does sunscreen expire?
Sunscreen definitely does have an expiration date, though the exact date varies based on a number of factors. To help you decide whether last year’s bottle of lotion or spray is still good, or whether you need to trash it and buy something new, here’s a look at when sunscreen expires.
Can I Trust the Sunscreen Expiration Date?
Sunscreen is considered an over-the-counter drug in the United States, which is different than Europe’s classification of sunscreen as a cosmetic (more on this in a moment). Because sunscreen is a drug in the U.S.A., it is regulated by the Food & Drug Administration — better known as the FDA.
The FDA requires sunscreen manufacturers to include an expiration date on bottles of sunscreen with one exception: products whose stability testing has shown that the “product will remain stable for at least 3 years.”
What does that mean exactly? It means that, yes, you can go by the expiration date on bottles of sunscreen. If there isn’t one, the sunscreen should be good for 3 years. How do you know how old sunscreen is if there is no expiration date? It’s always a good idea to write on the bottle (with permanent marker) the date when you purchased the sunscreen. That way, you’ll always know.
The HUGE Exception to Sunscreen Expiration Dates
OK, so sunscreen expiration dates can be trusted. But there’s one significant exception: If you’ve been storing your sunscreen in exceedingly hot or cold environments.
Manufacturers test their sunscreens to generate expiration dates that assume storage on the shelf of a store or in a climate-controlled home or building. But that’s not always where we store sunscreen, is it? We often keep it inside a boat or a glove box or a storage shed. These spaces can be prone to extremely hot temperatures in summer and extremely cold temperatures in winter, which can reduce the efficacy of sunscreen’s chemicals. In short, keeping your sunscreen in hot or cold places accelerates its expiration.
How Much Sunscreen Should I Use?
Here’s a secret about sunscreen: If you’re using enough of it, you shouldn’t need to worry about expiration dates. The average adult needs about 1 ounce of sunscreen to cover his or her entire face and body — that’s enough sunscreen to fill a shot glass.
You also need to apply 15 minutes before going into the sun, as well as every 2 hours after that. So, if you spend any significant time in the sun this summer, you should exhaust not just one but several bottles of sunscreen. You shouldn’t need to store anything over the winter, leading you to ask the next spring: When does sunscreen expire?
What SPF is Best?
SPF stands for “sun protection factor,” and it is used to describe the amount of solar energy a sunscreen product is blocking. But there’s a catch. The sun includes two kinds of rays: 1) UVB rays (burning rays that cannot pass through glass) that have wavelengths ranging between 290 and 320 nanometers, and 2) UVA rays (aging rays that can pass through glass) that have wavelengths ranging between 320 and 400 nanometers.
SPF only measures effectiveness in blocking UVB rays.
The FDA mandates that only sunscreen products that block both types of rays can claim to be “broad spectrum” products. Make sure that your sunscreen of choice is “broad spectrum” so that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Also, make sure that your sunscreen is SPF 30 (or greater). SPF 30 products block 97% of UVB rays, while SPF 15 blocks only 93%. By comparison, SPF 50 (the highest allowed SPF designation) blocks 98%, which isn’t a significant leap over SPF 30.
Are There Truly Organic Ingredients?
This is where things get really tricky. When you think of something “organic,” you most likely picture a food product that contains no chemicals. But all sunscreen includes chemicals. So why are some called “organic” sunscreen products?
The term “organic” holds a different meaning in chemistry than it does in marketing. When looking for sunscreen, it’s better to think of products as either “mineral” or “chemical.” In chemistry terms, a mineral sunscreen is one that uses chemical compounds considered inorganic, while a chemical sunscreen is one that uses chemical compounds associated with living species.
That’s a lot to take in. If you want to know more about the confusion over organic sunscreen, here’s a really comprehensive and helpful write-up.
So, What Ingredients are Best Then?
The FDA has approved only 16 sunscreen filters for use in over-the-counter products. Here they are in alphabetical order:
- Aminobenzoic acid
- Menthyl anthranilate
- Octyl methoxycinnamate
- Octyl salicylate
- Padimate O
- Phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid
- Titanium dioxide
- Trolamine salicylate
- Zinc oxide
Of these 16 ingredients, only 8 are regularly used: avobenzone, homosalate, octocrylene, octyl methoxycinnamate, octyl salicylate, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide. Why these 8? Because the others are all unpleasant in some way, either irritating to the skin or known to cause strange side effects. Out of all 16, only 2 ingredients are considered “mineral” rather than “chemical” — titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Only avobenzone and zinc oxide are effective against UVA rays, while zinc oxide is the only ingredient that’s effective against both UVA and UVB rays.
So, all that to say: The one FDA-approved sunscreen filter that blocks both types of sun rays is actually “inorganic,” or a mineral ingredient.
What About Foreign Sunscreen?
I’m glad you asked, because this has actually been a point of contention in the United States. Way back in the 1970s, our government chose to regulate sunscreen as a drug, whereas Europe regulates sunscreen as a cosmetic. The drug-approval process is long and onerous, which means it’s much more difficult for an ingredient to gain approval in the United States than it is in Europe.
For that reason, the European Union has approved about 50% more sunscreen ingredients than the United States.
The United States has made attempts to close the gap. In November 2014, President Obama signed into law the Sunscreen Innovation Act, which directed the FDA to review 8 specific molecules already approved for use in sunscreen in the European Union: amiloxate, bemotrizinol, bisoctrizole, drometrizole trisiloxane, ecamsule, enzacamene, iscotrizinol, and octyl triazone.
Of these 8 molecules, 3 are known to be effective against both UVA and UVB rays: bemotrizinol, bisoctrizole and drometrizole trisiloxane. Each has been submitted for review to the FDA. None has earned approval.
So, if you find yourself in Europe, and you want a chemically “organic” rather than “mineral” sunscreen, look for something that includes one of these 3 molecules.
The 7 Rules of Sunscreen
Now that you know about sunscreen expiration dates, you’ll want to use sunscreen to make the most of your time in the outdoors this summer. Here are 7 rules to follow as you purchase, use, store and throw away sunscreen:
1. Find Something SPF 30 and Broad Spectrum
You get the best performance and most value out of a sunscreen product that is SPF 30. SPF 15 misses too many sun rays, and SPF 50 delivers negligible value over 30. Also, always get a product marked “broad spectrum” so that you know you’re blocking both UVA (aging) and UVB (burning) rays.
2. Always Choose Water Resistance
The FDA no longer allows manufacturers to market sunscreen products as waterproof or sweatproof. Rather, manufacturers can only call products “resistant” to water and sweat. Make sure you’re getting one of these resistant products.
3. Pick Lotion Over Spray
There’s nothing inherently wrong with sunscreen sprays. They are highly convenient, of course. But the effectiveness of sunscreen depends on how evenly you apply it. And it’s much more difficult to evenly apply a spray than it is a lotion.
4. Apply and Reapply
You need to apply sunscreen 15–30 minutes before you go outdoors. It’s smart to reapply a layer 30 minutes after your first exposure to the sun, then every 2 hours after that. SPF refers to the amount of solar energy blocked, not the amount of time over which a product blocks solar energy. Because there’s more solar energy when the sun is high, you’ll want to reapply more often around the middle of the day.
5. Remember the Shot Glass Rule
Remember the rule of thumb: It takes about 1 ounce of sunscreen (enough to fill a shot glass) to fully cover the body of an average adult. The American Academy of Dermatology has found that most Americans use only 25–50% of the sunscreen they need to be applying. Follow the shot glass rule, and make sure you’re fully protected.
6. Store in a Cool, Dark Place
Expiration dates are only as good as where you store your sunscreen. To ensure your product remains effective, store it in a place that’s cool (room temperature or near to it) and dark — because direct sunlight can also harm the efficacy of sunscreen.
7. Spring Clean
Yes, some sunscreens are good for up to 3 years. But it’s always a good idea to spring clean and start over after the calendar turns. Why? Despite our best intentions, we often store sunscreen in places that damage its effectiveness. Also, if you still have sunscreen left over from the previous year, take that as a challenge — it’s a good sign you’re not using nearly enough.
Don’t Become a Statistic
Given advances in technology and research, you would think that cases of skin cancer would be on the rapid decline. But that’s not the case. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Instances of melanoma increased 200% between 1973 and 2011. More than 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, and about 9,000 people die from melanoma annually.
Don’t be a statistic. Find a sunscreen product that you really like, because if you don’t like it (the way it smells and feels) you’ll be less likely to use it. And then follow the rules laid out above for maximum effectiveness. The sunny days of summer are so much fun — too much fun to risk your long-term health.
Also, if you’re looking for a so-called organic sunscreen for face, we wrote about some of our favorite products. Check out the post. And let us know what you think about sunscreen and its expiration in the comments section below, or by sending us a message through our contact form.
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