Does sun cream go off, and how do you know when it’s expired? We asked the experts

We’ve all been there: a sunny day takes us by surprise, and we’re scrambling in the back of the cupboard for last year’s SPF. Then the question strikes us: does sun cream go off or expire?

We all now know the importance of wearing SPF. Experts recommend wearing a facial SPF every day no matter the weather, and even if you’re inside but sat near a window. Up to 80 per cent of the sun’s rays can penetrate through clouds, meaning you’re at risk even on cloudy, cold days. Body-wise, it’s important to always protect your skin in warmer weather, and in particular on areas that clothes do not cover. 

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In short, sun protection is a vital part of modern life, and applying it provides protection from everything from visual skin damage to potential long-term illnesses. 

But how often should we actually be replacing our sun creams? Do they have an expiry date and if so, how long does the average one last? Before you go slapping on an out-of-date formula, here’s everything you need to know according to the experts.

Does sun cream go off or expire? 

To put it simply, yes, they absolutely do. ‘The longer the sunscreen is open the less effective it will be,’ says Ian Taylor, Cosmetic Scientist for Green People. ‘A sunscreen that is out of date will be less effective and may not offer the same protection against sunburn.’

green people sun cream
Instagram/Green People

This is true for all types of sunscreens too, says Dr Emma Cunningham, skin specialist and founder of dr-emma.co.uk. 

‘With chemical SPFs, ingredients such as oxybenzone and homosalate will oxidise and become entirely ineffective, and although that doesn’t occur with mineral SPFs and ingredients such as titanium or zinc oxide, they do still degrade, so the problem is one that affects both chemical and physical SPFs alike,’ she notes. 

How long does sun cream last once it’s opened?

Sun cream, in theory, should last around 36 months according to experts Dr Cunningham, and Dr Luca Russo, M.D., founder of Dr Russo Skincare. But that is from when they are first produced, not when they are purchased by you, or even when they have arrived on the shelves. 

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Once sun cream is opened, it is ‘good’ for around 6 to 12 months, says Dr Russo. However, certain factors can impact its longevity, including where you store it. Keep it in a cool, dark place, rather than anywhere warm or exposed to sunlight. 

Is there anything on the packaging you should check for?

Yes. The symbols on the bottle do in fact have meaning, despite being confusing initially! Sometimes the bottle or box the product comes in will even have an expiry date in numbers, which will read as, for example, 10 22, which means October 2022. However, the numbers usually refer to the expiry date for when the product can be used if it goes unopened. Once it is opened, it may not necessarily last for that long. 

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The PAO symbol on the bottle (which looks like a jar being opened) will have a time span on it, for example, ‘12M’ meaning it lasts for 12 months after it is first opened. 

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If the hourglass symbol is also present (see above), this means it has 30 months to be used within whether it has been opened or not. 

How can you tell if your sun cream has expired? 

‘If there is any change in the formulation you should not use the product,’ says Melanie Black, Avène’s Training & Scientific Communications Manager. ‘For example, if it seems a lot more watery or gloopy compared to normal or the colour and smell has changed.’ 

avene sun cream
Avene

‘Always err on the side of caution as this is your protection from the sun so it’s very important the product has not started to degrade or oxidise,’ she adds. 

Can you use last year’s sun cream this year?

This really depends on when you bought it, where you have stored it, and what it looks and feels like. The sun cream must be within its expiry date and the PAO or hourglass symbols, and also should have been stored in a cool, dark place. It should also smell and look as it did, and not be gloopy or runny in texture. 

If the cream was often exposed to direct sunlight during a hot beach holiday, it’s probably best to be safer than sorry and purchase a new one, says Melanie. 

Are the ‘rules’ different for facial and body SPFs?

As we should be wearing our facial SPF every day, without fail, the chances are you will run out of your product before it actually expires. 

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However if that’s not the case, the same rules apply. Check the expiry date, symbols, consistency, smell, and consider where it has been stored. 

Also consider that the skin on our face is exposed to the sun more than our bodies and thus often needs more protection, so it’s sometimes safer to buy a new formula rather than relying on an older product. 

What about sprays?

Sprays are the same, says Dr Russo, but you should ensure you give the can a shake before application.

Feature by Rebecca Fearn