Does sunscreen expire? What to look for when choosing a sunscreen and meaning behind SPF

Sunscreen or sun cream is important for protecting against sun damage

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Summer is almost here and the sun is finally coming out. It’s a time to enjoy outdoor activities, such as picnics in the park, gardening, or watching and playing sports. While the instinct is to rush outside as soon as the sun appears, especially in the UK where sunny days seem few and far between, it's important to remember that we need to protect ourselves from the potentially damaging UV rays of the sun.

Such protection comes from sunscreen, or sun cream. But if you go to the aisle of your local shop and look at the items on the shelf you’ll find that there are numerous products available, so trying to choose one can feel a little overwhelming. We’ve all heard of SPF, and are aware that sunscreens are available in different SPFs, but do you know what this actually means? Or if you already have a bottle of sunscreen left over from last summer then you may still be able to use it, but how do you know? NationalWorld has answered these questions for you below so that you can have all the information you need to be able to enjoy the sun safely.

Does sunscreen expire?

Yes, like all other skincare products, sunscreen does expire. The good news, however, is that the expiration date on sunscreen is generous. It differs from specific product to product, but as a general rule it lasts for two to three years, according to skincare brand Nivea. It’s important to note, however, that the time period begins from the date of manufacture, not the date you buy it. So when you are buying sunscreen it’s a good idea to check the bottle for the expiration date which may be printed on it, usually somewhere on the back.

An expiration date, however, is not always printed on sunscreen. In cases where an expiration date is not printed on the bottle, there are a few ways you can decide if an existing bottle of sunscreen you have can still be used. The first is to think about when you bought it. If it was around two or three years ago, or getting close to that, then it’s a good idea to buy a new bottle as it is unlikely to still be effective. In addition, you can also look at the sunscreen itself. If the consistency doesn’t seem quite right, for example, if it’s watery, or it doesn’t smell as you would expect then it’s time to buy a new bottle.

How long does sunscreen last for?

Once opened, sunscreen can remain effective for anywhere between six months and three years. Again, this varies from product to product so it’s important to check the details which are written on the bottle you have or are purchasing. This is usually indicated by the use of an open jar symbol, which has a number and an ‘m’ printed underneath it. For example, a product which has ‘12m’ written under the jar symbol means that the product will expire 12 months after opening. Alternatively, there may be an hourglass symbol on the bottle and that means that the product will last for 30 months from its manufacture date, opened or unopened.

What to look for when choosing a sunscreen - including SPF number and expiry date.What to look for when choosing a sunscreen - including SPF number and expiry date.
What to look for when choosing a sunscreen - including SPF number and expiry date.

Is it okay to use expired sunscreen?

You should not use expired sunscreen as it will not be effective at protecting you against UV rays. This is because the product will have started to ‘go off’ once the expiration date has passed, meaning the ingredients will have begun decomposing and will therefore be inactive. 

 What does SPF mean?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. You’ll recognise it from bottles of sunscreen and a number always follows it. For example, SPF 30 or SPF 50. It’s a measure of how well the sunscreen will protect you from the UV rays of the sun, and the higher the number the longer it will take for you to be at risk of sunburn compared to if you’re not wearing any sunscreen at all.

So if you use SPF 50 you can spend around 50 times longer in the sun. If it would normally take around 10 minutes for your skin to start to go red when out in the sun with no sun protection then you’ll be able to spend around 500 minutes, or just over eight hours in the sun without getting sunburnt. Another skincare brand Olay notes, however, that this is just an estimate and is dependent on a number of factors, including the precise conditions of the day, the season and the time of day.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that regardless of the SPF of the sunscreen, it’s important for people to apply sunscreen, as directed on the bottle, 30 minutes before going outside and then also reapply it every two hours or immediately after swimming or sweating.

What should I consider when choosing sunscreen?

There are many different sunscreens available so choosing one can be a bit of a minefield. The secret behind choosing the best sunscreen for you could be in your skin type, states the Skin Cancer Foundation. Sunscreens are categorised into mineral and chemical creams; the former only contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and sits on the top of the skin and the latter contains more ingredients and is absorbed by the skin, as explained by skincare brand Dermalogica.

Some mineral sunscreens may leave a white cast on the skin after application as it takes longer for them to sink into the skin. Mineral sunscreens may be best for people who have sensitive skin or dry skin because they are made up of simpler ingredients and are therefore less likely to cause irritation. Chemical creams, however, may be preferred by people who have a darker skin tone because they are not as noticeable. They may also work well for people with oily or blemish-prone skin because they are quickly absorbed and do not stay on the skin’s surface for long, something which could exacerbate these concerns. 

In terms of the SPF to choose, the NHS recommends that you should choose an SPF of at least 30 to protect yourself. The final thing to consider is your budget, and once you have taken into consideration the above, you should choose a product that fits what you can afford to buy.

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