Picture me, age 14: Blond, blue-eyed and pasty-pale.
It was a scorching hot weekend in June, and I was on a three-day camping trip with my dad. As two fair-skinned, freckle-faced Caucasians, we diligently applied sunscreen — SPF 45 — each morning before emerging from our tent, and every couple of hours thereafter. Coppertone would have been proud.
Sunday evening on the way home, though, I felt red and hot. I could see the signs of sunburn emerging, and I felt tired and dizzy from too much time in the sun. When I awoke on Monday morning, my shoulders and upper back were covered in second-degree burns, oozing, pussy blisters screaming across my skin. Getting dressed was a non-starter — even the lightest, gentlest fabrics felt like daggers on my shoulders. I was a mess.
The problem? Our sunscreen was more than a year expired.
As sunscreen ages, its sun-protection ingredients degrade, reducing its effectiveness. Keeping a fresh bottle on hand, and using it every time you’re out in the sun, will keep you from getting sunburned — which can cause your skin to become dry, discolored, wrinkled and prone to bruising over time — and also help prevent skin cancer, the most common cancer of all.
Thanks to that painfully unforgettable experience, I’ve become relentless in my sunscreen advocacy crusade. You won’t find me preaching about wearing a high SPF — any broad-spectrum sunblock over SPF 15 will do — but you will hear me insist that you check the expiration dates on your sunscreen bottles. I wouldn’t wish the (highly preventable!) burns I experienced on anyone.
The good news is the Food and Drug Administration requires companies to print expiration dates on sunblock, since it’s classified as an over-the-counter drug. And while dermatologists often say that a bottle of sunscreen, usually around 6 ounces, should last only about a week with daily, full-body use, we all know that’s not how the average person uses it. We buy a bottle at the beginning of summer and leave it in the car, or forget it at the beach, or tuck it under the bathroom sink, using it again the next summer (or many summers later) after rediscovering it, never questioning its efficacy.
But now that you know sunscreen expires — with potentially disastrous results — you’ll surely remember to check your bottles.
If your sunblock doesn’t have an expiration date on the bottle for some reason, though, keep Dr. Shari Lipner’s advice in mind.
“Sunscreens are designed to last for three years,” says the assistant professor of dermatology at Cornell University’s Weill graduate school of medicine. “If your bottle does not have a date printed on it, write the date that you purchased it [on the bottle] and make sure to discard after three years.”
She also notes that storing your sunscreen in a hot car can degrade key ingredients, causing it to become less effective. “If the consistency seems off — runny or grainy,” she advises, “discard and buy a new sunscreen.”
And if you do end up with a sunburn this summer, don’t freak out. There are ways to treat it and reduce its more insufferable side effects. First, says Lipner, get out of the sun as soon as possible. Then, take a cool shower or bath, and apply cool compresses to any burned or red areas for 10-15 minutes, four times a day.
“Aloe vera and moisturizer are soothing and will help the skin heal faster,” she says. And you can take ibuprofen to help with swelling. “If it blisters, never pop the blisters. Let them heal on their own to avoid infections,” Lipner says.
Still need a reason to apply (non-expired!) sunscreen regularly? Consider this patient of Lipner’s: “The worst sunburn I ever saw was in a 23-year-old woman who fell asleep on the beach. Her face and body was completely blistered. She did not seek care immediately and her wounds became infected.”
Yikes! Don’t be that woman. Before the days grow hotter, get thee to the drugstore for a fresh bottle of SPF.