As the parent of a fair-skinned ginger-haired child, I’ve been diligent when it comes to sun protection. Well, I thought I had until we went on a week-long cruise through the Caribbean. Hats, long sleeves and multiple tubes of sunscreen were packed.

Day three we hit the beach in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands for an afternoon of building sandcastles. Under a cloudy sky, my husband lathered our son with what was left of one tube of sunscreen while I cracked the seal on a “new” tube of SPF 30 for the ginger and me. With the cloud-cover and the sunscreen, I thought we were good for the few hours. I was wrong.

By the end of the day, the boys were fine but for the redhead and me, we were in trouble. The sunburn was excruciating. The sheets on the cruise ship were suddenly like 30 grit sandpaper. Sleep escaped us and we were miserable. The rest of the journey was spent in the kid’s club away from the sun.

The first call I made when we got home was to Coppertone to chew them out for ruining our vacation. Obviously, they get this call often because the representative calmly asked me to check the expiry date on the bottom of the container. There wasn’t one. Then she asked about the consistency of the cream. It was runny, not creamy and that should have been my first clue. I’d unwittingly bought a tube of useless cream, past its expiration date. Yes, sunscreen goes bad.

Avoid the Burn! Tips to Prevent Sunburn

  1. Like they say, “An ounce of prevention.” Serious. Use at least an ounce to cover an entire body (adult) each time you lather it on.
  2. Pick a sunscreen that is broad-spectrum (meaning it blocks UVB that causes sunburns and skin cancer and also blocks UVA that penetrates the skin deeper causing wrinkles and cancer). Dr Adams suggests looking for at least SPF 30 with mineral block like Zinc oxide and/or Titanium dioxide. Brands he suggests include La Roche-Posay Anthelios Sunscreen, Ombrelle UltraLight 60 SPF, Vichy Soleil Sunscreen and Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Zinc.
  3. Don’t depend on just using sunscreen to avoid sunburns. Hats, long sleeves, umbrellas or shady trees are great.
  4. Avoid going without sun protection but especially in the hottest part of the day. Avoid adventures in the sun between 10 am and 2 pm.
  5. Store your sunscreen out of the heat. Put it in the cooler or wrap it in a towel.
  6. Reapply sunscreen after a few hours or after going in the water (all sunscreen will eventually wash off). Now that you know it’s got a short shelf-life, use it up.
  7. Invest in clothing that offers a UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) such as which has a lineup of clothing for all ages.

Properly caring for your sunscreen means it should last up to three years but don’t tempt fate. If it loses its consistency, discolours or smells off, throw it out.

I contacted Dr Stewart Adams (M.D., F.R.C.P., F.A.A.D.) of the Market Mall Dermatology Clinic in Calgary to see if this is true and to my surprise, he confirmed that sunscreen can go bad – with or without going beyond a best-before date.

“Leaving your sunscreen in the sun or in a hot car will decrease the effectiveness of your sun protection almost immediately,” said Dr Adams. “Never leave it in the sun on the beach or dangle it from a backpack or golf bag.”

As for me and my ginger, we will always check the expiry date and the consistency of sunblock!