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Wearing long-expired sunscreen is like a red badge of shame

When I was a kid and all we had to do for vacation was drive to the beach, the song “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells was a big hit: “Crimson and clover, over and over,” it goes, over and over.

It played in my head, as I looked in the mirror, on vacation, in the Rockies.

Here’s an epiphany: If you drive to the Continental Divide, smear on some old sunscreen you found in the shelf on the passenger’s side door of a truck, go for a hike through a mountain pass, take a nap in the wildflowers, come back in a green shirt and look in the bathroom mirror, you look crimson and clover. Over and over.

How many times, over and over, depends not only on how long you wear the same green shirt, when you’re on vacation, but how fast you treat the burn. I smeared on hydrocortisone cream immediately.

I don’t know whether hydrocortisone cream expires. I should check.

Did you know that sunscreen expires?

You did? Oh … well, never mind then.

I forgot about that, but I was reminded hours later, when I walked into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and saw I was redder than an Alabama fan after a national championship.

Red alert

We try to think of clever ways to describe that radioactive red, so often compared to a cooked lobster – so neon red you look flush with passion or shame.

Many spring clovers have passed since I turned crimson, on vacation, because I know from experience that at high altitude the air is thinner, and the closer you get to heaven, the deeper you burn.

Still you never see “Wear Sunscreen” warnings for tourists in national parks, probably because that’s so mundane compared to everything else parks have to tell visitors now. (“Put the campfire out! Get off the geyser! Stop backing toward the cliff to take a selfie! LEAVE THE @#$%ING BISON ALONE!”)

I know I remembered to wear sunscreen, because it was Coppertone, and it had that Coppertone smell that reminds me of the beach. Someone should make a cologne that smells like that, and call it “The Beach” or “Ocean” or “Coconut Oil.”

Every time I get that whiff, I have flashbacks to summer vacations at Panama City Beach, and I want to go back, sit on the sand, drink a margarita and play Jimmy Buffett.

Snow-capped mountain beauty all around me, and all I want to do is go lie on the beach, because the sunscreen smells like coconut.

That’s a summer safety tip: Live in the moment, not in some nostalgic daydream from your distant youth.


The Food and Drug Administration requires that sunscreen last a minimum of three years. Some bottles have expiration dates, and some don’t. I couldn’t find one on the goop that was good for nothing but beach dreams.

Leaving it in the truck door probably wasn’t a good idea. “To keep your sunscreen in good condition, avoid exposing the container to excessive heat or direct sun,” says a Mayo Clinic website on sunscreen safety.

That’s a fun fact: Direct exposure to sunlight spoils sunscreen.

If like me you tend to hoard sunscreen – and lots of other creams and ointments from various ailments marking your long, winding path through the mountains of time and over the hill – then you must remember this:

That it still feels thick and smells like the beach means nothing.

If you don’t know how old it is, you have to toss it out, and go buy fresh sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends one with a SPF of 30 or more. It also recommends wearing a hat. And staying out of the sun.

So, be sure to resupply and reapply, before you get so burned you descend from the great divide looking like you’re red with shame.