Wellness·5 min read

Does Sunscreen Expire? And All Your Other Burning Questions

A woman lathering sunscreen on her arm
theSkimm | Photo: Pexels
May 19, 2022

Some people may think to put on sunscreen only while at the beach on a sweltering day. But sunscreen isn’t just for when it’s getting hot in here… Well, outside. You should wear sunscreen year-round, and every day. No matter the weather, how easily you get sunburned, or your complexion. In fact, sunscreen is the most important part of any skincare routine. It could protect against sun damage, cancer, and premature aging skin.

We’ve given the lowdown on sunscreen before (see: our 101 guide). But there’s still some misinformation out there about this skin essential that might make you feel confused or uncertain while shopping in the sunscreen aisle. That’s why we’re addressing some of the most common misconceptions and your burning questions about this all-too-important product. 

What’s better, mineral or chemical sunscreen?

Sunscreen can generally be divided into two categories. Chemical sunscreen gets absorbed into the skin and is made with active ingredients like oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octisalate. It helps filter UV rays and prolong protection from the sun. Mineral sunscreen (also sometimes called sunblock) sits on top of the skin and acts as a blocker. Its active ingredients are zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. And it blocks UV light by acting as a reflective barrier. The FDA also considers those two active ingredients in mineral sunscreens generally safe for everyone, including pregnant people.

Some people prefer mineral over chemical sunscreen because it’s less likely to cause skin irritation. But it’s also more environmentally friendly. In the end, it’s really up to you to decide which type of sunscreen is right for you. Any sunscreen is better than none at all. 

Does sunscreen cause cancer?

In short: Probably not. 

Actually, it’s the sun’s harmful UV rays – and the UV rays from tanning beds – that can cause skin cancer. Which sunscreen works to protect against. There were some concerns about carcinogens in sunscreen after Johnson and Johnson (J&J) recalled some sunscreens last summer. That happened after the company found trace amounts of the carcinogen benzene in its sunscreen spray products. But don’t worry, benzene is NOT a common product found in sunscreen. The fact that J&J found any in the first place was a super rare occurrence. 

Does sunscreen contain harmful ingredients?

The idea that sunscreen might contain harmful ingredients may have started with a report released in 2008 by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. It called on the FDA to look into oxybenzone, a common chemical found in sunscreen. The org said the chemical could disrupt hormones, possibly increasing risk of certain kinds of cancers. But those claims were largely based on animal studies. Studies since then have shown that some active ingredients in sunscreen can stick around in the bloodstream for “extended periods of time.” The FDA has called for more studies on oxybenzone and 11 other active ingredients. And it acknowledged that more studies are needed to determine what levels of absorption are considered safe. Although it’s also stressed that absorption does not equal risk and that people should keep using sunscreen. 

Are there any sunscreen ingredients I should avoid? 

All FDA-approved sunscreens have been tested and are considered safe. But if you develop allergic reactions, or have eczema or rosacea, chemical sunscreens might not be the best option for you. Since these sunscreens absorb into the skin, they can potentially exacerbate these conditions. If that’s the case for you, consider loading up your beach bag with products that will cause the least amount of irritation, like ones that don’t contain fragrances.

Is sunscreen safe for pregnant people?

The American College of OB-GYNs recommends that pregnant women regularly use sunscreen. Dermatologists recommend that everyone look for a sunscreen that is at least SPF 30 and protects against both UVB and UVA rays. But that’s even more relevant for pregnant people who could be at a higher risk for developing more skin pigmentation that gets darker in the sun. They should also opt for mineral sunscreen over chemical sunscreen, which can be more gentle on pregnant people’s skin (since it can get more sensitive during pregnancy). 

Does sunscreen prevent tanning? 

For the most part, yeah. But your skin can still get darker in the sun, even after you’ve slathered on layers of cream. Keep in mind, no amount of intentional tanning is considered safe. But if you’re someone who appreciates a summer “glow,” go for a spray tan to offset the skin cancer risks.

Does sunscreen expire?  

Yes. But it can live in your medicine cabinet for about three years before that happens. For an added measure of reassurance, examine the consistency of your sunscreen. If it’s started to change, it might be time to throw it away. And to maximize your sunscreen’s effectiveness, store it in a cool, dark place. 

theSkimm

Your skin is the largest organ of your body and one of the most important ways you can protect it is by wearing sunscreen. So be sure to familiarize yourself with the available products and their ingredients, so you can choose the best sunscreen for you and your skin.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 


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