Enjoy your vacation, and remember the sunscreen

It’s vacation time. After the end of school, families are outdoors more. Many are planning vacation trips to other areas.

Owning a newspaper and job printing business, my family didn’t take many vacations when I was growing up. Most of our trips involved going to see relatives a few hours away. Every few years, we’d travel to Iowa where two of my aunts lived.

The nearest public swimming pool was a half-hour drive. Sometimes we could persuade our parents to take us to a swimming spot along the river. There were no sandy beaches, just mud or gravel. I remember a couple of times when we took a boat down the river.

I still remember one year when my parents decided to explore our home state of Missouri. We visited state parks that were close enough for a day trip. My younger brother and I were at the beginning of our teen years, old enough to have patience for a longer drive.

None of these were “improved” parks. Some might have swings for kids. Mostly they were scenic and didn’t have a lot of traffic. We’d take sandwich fixings, fruit and desserts along to have a picnic and then go exploring.

So far this spring has been disappointing for those wanting to enjoy the outdoors. The frequent storms have been great for the grass and vegetation but haven’t been conducive to outdoor fun. When you do get the chance to head out to fish, go boating or just hit the golf course, remember to wear sunscreen.

Like most of my generation, we spent our childhoods outdoors in the summer, only going inside when hungry, thirsty or in need of a bathroom. I always had a great tan that developed gradually over those summer days.

Back then we were oblivious to the dangers of sunburn, other than the pain. Now we know those sunburns can cause premature aging and skin cancers, so hopefully we use sunscreen when outdoors for extended periods.

Consumer Reports recently had an article answering something I’ve always wondered about. Does sunscreen expire? Can you use that leftover sunscreen from last year? The Consumer Reports article that follows will provide some answers.

Does sunscreen expire?

If your sunscreen has been sitting around for more than three years, it’s lost its power to protect your skin against sunburn and sun damage.

Although sunscreen is meant to be used year-round, most people don’t think much about it until they’re ready to trade jackets and long sleeves for T-shirts and bathing suits. But will the lotion or spray you’ve had hanging around since last summer still protect your skin?

It depends. Sunscreen does expire, but it has a long shelf life. According to the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates sunscreens, sunscreens must maintain their SPF and broad-spectrum protection for three years.

The obvious way to check if your sunscreen is still okay to use is to look for an expiration date on the container. The FDA doesn’t require manufacturers to date their products, though. And even when there is a date, it’s not always easy to spot. On sunscreen tubes, check the crimped part at the top or the side or bottom of a bottle for an embossed date. Printed dates may be on the bottom or side of a can or bottle. “A sunscreen that expires in six months should work as well as one that has an expiration date of three years away,” says Susan Booth, who oversees CR’s sunscreen testing.

The exception: Sunscreen that’s been exposed to direct sunlight or excessive heat can deteriorate faster. So a container stored in your bathroom cabinet is fine. One in your beach bag in the trunk of your car probably isn’t.

Even if the bottle is half empty, sunscreen that’s within the three-year window will be safe to use, as long as it’s been stored properly. “Opening a sunscreen doesn’t cause it to expire any faster,” Booth says. “We’ve retested sunscreen samples from previous years’ testing after storing them in our lab and found no differences in performance.”

If the sunscreen doesn’t have an expiration date and you can’t remember when you bought it, it’s better not to take a chance. Using an expired sunscreen won’t adequately protect you from the sun, leaving your skin more vulnerable to sunburn and the kind of sun damage that can lead to skin cancer and premature skin aging. Buy yourself some new sunscreen. If the sunscreen is not marked with an expiration date, use a permanent marker to write the date you bought it on the container.

Regardless of the sunscreen’s expiration or purchase date, toss it if the contents have separated, changed color, look watery, or have a funny smell. These are all signs of spoilage.


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