Does sunscreen expire? We answer all your SPF questions and reveal our favourite products

Wondering if sunburn turns into a tan, does sunscreen expire or what SPF actually stands for? We've got you

Redhead woman applying sunscreen on a beach
(Image credit: Getty images)

You've discovered an old SPF and are now asking yourself 'does sunscreen expire or not?' We've all been there, especially when the sun appears after a long, wintry absence. Most of us know it's important to wear sun protection during the warmer months, but it's not always simple to stay across the best practise of actually using the stuff. We're here to help.  

We've got answers to all of your top SPF questions, from the difference between chemical and mineral sun cream to how much you should apply and whether—when it comes to protecting the skin—even the best foundation with SPF can come close to sunscreen. 

The trick with sun protection is to treat it like any other part of your skincare routine. This means doing your research, in the same way you would to find the best eye cream, then using it consistently as part of your daily routine—much like your skincare acids or retinol cream.

With so many SPF products on the market and a whole dictionary of sun-cream terminology being thrown at us, it can be difficult to figure out what we really need for our skin. So, as well as answering your questions, we have broken down sunscreen lingo and picked out the best sun-protection products for you to try. Here's hoping for a year full of sun, outdoor activities and happy healthy skin!

Does sunscreen expire? Your SPF questions answered

1. Does sunscreen expire?

For anyone who has dug out a bottle from last summer or the one before that, and is hoping to use it, we have bad news: yes, sunscreen absolutely has a use-by date. The average shelf life of sun cream is 6 to twelve months after opening, so sadly last summer's bottle is unlikely to be protecting you as well as it should. 

It's also worth knowing that leaving your bottles in direct sunlight or high temperatures causes the potency of your SPF to dissolve even faster, too.

2. What does SPF stand for?

  • SPF: Stands for Sun Protection Factor. The number signals how often you need to reapply to avoid burning from UVB rays; if it takes 20 minutes for your unprotected skin to redden in the midday sun, it will take thirty times as long for that to occur if you apply SPF30.
  • UVA: Think A for ageing. These pesky rays are present all year round, travelling through cloud and glass to penetrate deep into skin.
  • UVB: Think B for burning. UVB rays vary in intensity depending on the weather; you’re most at risk in the UK during spring and summer, when the sun is highest in the sky.
  • Broad spectrum: Refers to sun lotions that shield skin from both UVA and UVB rays.

3. Do I need SPF in the UK?

Anyone who has been caught out by an unexpectedly sunny day on these shores can confirm this: you absolutely do need to use sunscreen in the UK. "While we may be more likely to get sunburnt in hotter climates, the risks from UVA damage in the UK is present all year round," explains skin health specialist Dr Anita Sturnham.

4. Is makeup with SPF as good as sunscreen?

Your foundation might promise an SPF, however, "by the very nature of their intended use, they’re applied a in far smaller quantities, and therefore are often not providing the same level of protection as ‘pure’ sunscreens," explains skincare expert and Ultrasun UK MD, Abi Cleeve.

5. How to apply sunscreen

Heading out in the sunshine? It's important to be organised: apply your sun cream ahead of time—not just as you are heading out the door or sitting down in the park—to avoid burning.

"Do it first thing, do it indoors and apply plenty," says Abi Cleeve. "Any application in direct sunlight increases evaporation and up to 60% of protection can be lost."

6. Should I use acids in summer?

Yes, as long as you're careful this shouldn't be a problem. Ingredients that chemically exfoliate (AHAs and BHAs), or speed up cell turnover, such as retinol, can make skin more sensitive to sun damage. Apply SPF every day and limit these punchier ingredients to nighttime use only.

7. Does SPF block Vitamin D?

According to a 2019 study by the British Journal of Dermatology, "using daily broad‐spectrum sunscreens with high UVA protection will not compromise vitamin D status in healthy people."

In short, the dangers of sun exposure far outweigh its benefits, so slather on that sunscreen.

8. Chemical vs mineral SPF—what's the difference?

As the name suggests, once they've sunk into your skin, chemical sunscreens use chemicals to absorb UV rays that enter in order to prevent damage at a cellular level. Mineral (or physical) lotions sit on top of skin, reflecting away the suns rays. 

Which one you use really comes down to personal preference. Chemical formulations tend to have a lighter more elegant texture, which makes them a popular choice for daily use. However, if your skin is sensitive, physical SPF may be the best option as chemicals can be irritating. If you've ever experienced weepy or stinging eyes after applying sunscreen, try switching to mineral. 

9. Does menopause cause pigmentation?

As we hit the menopause, our melanin cells can produce pigment too quickly, leading to a rise in so-called ‘age’ or ‘sun’ spots.

Vitamin C will help fade existing marks, while daily use of strong SPFs will stop new ones from forming.

10. Is after-sun better than body lotion?

The answer to this depends on the body lotion in question. Essentially both types of product are designed to hydrate the skin, but good after-sun lotions are specifically formulated with cooling, anti-inflammatory ingredients—as well as water-binding ones—to deeply quench parched skin. "The biggest benefit from after-sun is its high water content, which cools and hydrates," says Candice Gardner, Education Manager at Dermalogica.

11. Does sunburn turn into tan?

Trauma tanners, listen up! "A tan that occurs too fast from inadequate protection only causes the skin to burn and shed, leaving you tanless in days," says Abi Cleeve. To deepen those tan lines safely, try a sunscreen with a specialist formula that speeds up the process.

Best SPF sunscreen products