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Can you use expired sunscreen? When to toss it

Expired SPF may not work as well, leaving you vulnerable to a sunburn or other skin damage.

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Sunscreen is summer's best friend. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Is your sunscreen bottle older than the pandemic? It's probably time to toss it. This summer (and every single day the sun shines) it's important to slather on the SPF, especially if you're going to spend more time outdoors than you did last year. 

But before heading to the park, pool, beach or backyard this summer, make sure your sunscreen is actually going to work for you. Yes, sunscreen can expire and when it does, it's not as protective. 

Read more: Should you use chemical or mineral sunscreen? 

When does sunscreen expire? 

The Food and Drug Administration mandates that all sunscreens maintain their full strength for three years -- so, if you have leftover sunscreen at the end of the summer, you should be able to safely use it for two more summers. 

Some sunscreen manufacturers print the expiration date on the bottle or label, but not all do. When you buy a bottle of sunscreen, check for an expiration date. If it doesn't have one, write the date of purchase in permanent marker. 

Also take note of the period-after-opening symbol, which tells you how long a product stays fresh once opened. It typically looks like a jar with the lid off and a number, which indicates the number of months after you open it that it's usable.

Theoretically, if you're using sunscreen in the recommended way -- putting it on any bare skin when you go into direct sunlight for any length of time, and reapplying it periodically -- you shouldn't have much left over year to year.

If you have a bottle of sunscreen that you're not sure about, use your best judgement: When's the last time you remember using that sunscreen? Does the bottle itself seem old? If you think it's over 3 years old, it probably is. 

Other hints that your SPF might be ineffective include: 

  • Consistency: If the sunscreen is very watery or chunky, it may be expired.
  • Color: If it appears an unusual shade, it's probably expired.
  • Smell: If it smells different than it did when you bought it (or smells weird in general), it may be expired.

Can you use expired sunscreen?

A mom putting sunscreen on her daughter at the beach

Expired sunscreen won't harm your skin, but it will allow the sun to harm your skin.

Uwe Krejci/Getty Images

Using expired sunscreen won't hurt you directly -- as in, it won't do anything to your skin -- but it could set you up for a gnarly sunburn. And, as you already know, sunburns indicate unprotected sun exposure, which is directly related to your risk of developing skin cancer and premature aging. 

The expiration date is there for a reason: to let you know if that sunscreen is still effective. It's always a good idea to buy a new bottle of sunscreen if yours is expired. And if you're into tanning under the sun, try a sunless self-tanner instead.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.