Does sun cream go out of date? Plus the signs it has expired

Experts tell us how to tell if your sun cream is out of date

Bottle of sun cream being poured into a hand
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We asked the experts to tell us does sun cream go out of date and how to to know when it's expired, so you can keep yourself protected during a heatwave.

As the days get warmer, applying sun cream becomes an essential part of our daily routine. But it's not always easy. Whether you're trying to work out which sun cream to use on your face (opens in new tab), the best sunscreen for your kids (opens in new tab) or just want to know which are the best sun creams (opens in new tab) that won't leave you covered in a sticky white cast, it can be tricky to work out what's best to use.

To add even more confusion to the mix, it's not always easy to tell if sun cream has expired, meaning you might not want to go back to that bottle you bought last year. Abbas Kanani, lead pharmacist and health adviser for Chemist Click, says "Sunscreens are required to work for at least three years by the Food and Drug Administration, however some sunscreens may lose their effectiveness sooner and this can vary from cream to cream depending on brand." 

Does sun cream go out of date?

Yes, sun cream does go out of date. The longer a bottle has been open for, the less effective it is at protecting your skin, so make sure you check any bottle that's leftover from a previous summer.

The majority of sunscreens are made to last three years, so, if stored correctly, your sun cream could last you all summer. But this varies depending on the brand - Nivea (opens in new tab), for example, says its sun creams have a shelf life of 30 months - so it's always best to check.

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Dr Sasha Dhoat (opens in new tab), consultant dermatologist at Stratum Clinics, says "Sunscreens past the expiry date are unable to achieve the SPF rating stated on the container, the primary anti-ageing and anti-skin cancer effect and are not fit for purpose. That goes for both chemical and mineral sunscreens."

How you store sun cream will also have an impact on how well it lasts, and it's best to keep the bottle in a cool, dark place, rather than exposed to the sun. Dr Ross Perry (opens in new tab), medical director of Cosmedics Skin Clinics, says "Storing sunscreen in hot places or exposure to moisture can break down a sunscreen’s components and reduce its effectiveness even before it’s ‘officially’ expired - therefore less effective in blocking UV rays. 

"Protect the sunscreen by wrapping the bottles in towels or keeping them in the shade," he adds. "And sunscreen containers can also be kept in coolers while outside in the heat for long periods of time."

As with all other cosmetics and skincare products, you won't feel the benefit if you use something that is out of date. Prolonged periods in the sun are dangerous, and can lead to sun stroke or heat exhaustion symptoms (opens in new tab). Thus using out of date sun cream can be equally as dangerous, because it increases the risk of burn or even skin cancer.

How do you know if sunscreen is out of date?

Aside from the expiration date on the bottle, there are a number of tell tale signs that your sunscreen is out of date, from a strange smell to a watery, lumpy or even separated liquid in the bottle.

Lead pharmacist Abbas Kanani (opens in new tab) says "Expired sunscreen usually loses its consistency or may become discoloured or look slightly yellow - it may no longer look or smell the way it did when you bought it." 

He adds: "Physical and chemical sunscreens are different in that physical sunscreens deteriorate and chemical sunscreens oxidize."

Because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (opens in new tab) requires sun creams to work for at least three years, you may be able to work out whether it is still usable if you can remember when you bought it. If you can't remember, it's probably best to buy a new bottle. 

A bottle of sun cream being poured into a hand

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Where is the expiry date on sunscreen?

Sunscreen will usually have a stamp on the bottle that shows the expiration date, which is the deadline to use the sun cream before. Some bottles will also have a little jar symbol with a lifted lid. On this symbol there will be a number followed by 'M' - the number refers to how many months the sun cream will last once it's been opened. So, 12M means your sun cream should be used within 12 months of it being opened.

Dr Dhoat suggests writing the date of purchase on the bottle, to help you remember how long it's been open for.

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Does sunscreen expire if it's not opened?

Yes, sunscreen still expires if unopened. Dr Ross Perry says a good rule of thumb is to leave unopened sun cream for around 3 years, depending on how it's stored.

Abbas Kanani agrees. He says: "Even unopened bottles can expire. I would advise not using sunscreen after three years even if it has been unopened, as it may not be as effective."

Dr Dhoat similarly adds: "No sunscreen should be used past its expiry date, opened or unopened. All sunscreens will degrade with time and this will occur quicker in heat and sun."

Is it OK to use expired sunscreen?

It is generally not a good idea to use expired sun cream. Dr Dhoat says "Expired sunscreen, both chemical and physical, is not as effective at preventing ageing damage and skin cancer from ultraviolet light and the SPF listed on the label is not guaranteed."

Dr Ross Perry agrees. He says "Expired sunscreen will still have some UV blocking power but not the correct strength due to the components breaking down. It will offer you a little protection but not as much as you need." 

While any form of sunscreen is better than none at all, using expired products runs the risk of burning and even developing skin cancer later down the line.

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How long is sunscreen effective after its expiration date?

The general consensus is that sunscreen is effective for three years, so if the expiration date falls before three years after you purchased it, it might still offer some protection.

But remember that the longer sun cream has been open for, the less effective it will be, so if you do find yourself using expired sunscreen make sure to reapply regularly and try to keep out of the sun where you can, otherwise you might find yourself in need of some sunburn remedies (opens in new tab).

Video of the Week

A profile photo of Abbas Kanani
Abbas Kanani

Abbas graduated as a pharmacist in 2013 and spent the first 3 years working for high street multiples, including a senior management role with the largest multinational pharmacy in the UK. In 2017, he qualified as an independent prescriber, spending time working in a primary care setting. He then assumed a consulting role within the NHS, providing advisory services on cost savings and clinical efficiencies. He has been within Chemist Click since the very start and continues to play an integral role within the team.

Profile photo of Dr Sasha Dhoat
Dr Sasha Dhoat

Dr Sasha Dhoat is a UK-trained Consultant Dermatologist with over 15 years experience in the field, 11 of which as a substantive NHS Dermatology Consultant and Paediatric Dermatologist. She was initially appointed at The Royal Free Hospital and currently works at the world-renowned Bart’s and The London Hospitals; the second largest paediatric unit in London.

A headshot of Dr Ross Perry
Dr Ross Perry

Ross qualified at Guy’s & St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School in 1994 and pursued a surgical career that now comprises NHS skin cancer reconstruction and private cosmetic skin treatments. He is also the Medical Director of Cosmedics Skin Clinics, which he established in 2003 and is extensively trained in all aspects of anti-ageing injections and dermatology surgery and leads his team in his own techniques and principles.

Ellie Hutchings
Junior Features Writer

Ellie joined Goodto as a Junior Features Writer in 2022 after finishing her Master’s in Magazine Journalism at Nottingham Trent University. Previously, she completed successful work experience placements with BBC Good Food, The Big Issue and the Nottingham Post, and freelanced as an arts and entertainment writer alongside her studies. In 2021, Ellie graduated from Cardiff University with a first-class degree in Journalism.