Should You Spring Clean Your Medicine Cabinet?

Cecile LaRiviere

Posted on April 07 2017

Has this ever happened to you? You're coughing, aching and feeling miserable. You head to the medicine cabinet in your fuzzy pink slippers to get a hot lemony beverage, and while you're waiting for the kettle to boil you notice that - eek - the package expired five years ago! After you congratulate yourself on your general good health (because hey, five years ago . . .) you start thinking "Will this still even work?" It's a good question and we decided to ask the experts if you should spring clean your medicine cabinet.

According to the FDA, you need to ditch medicines within moments of their expiry date. "The medicine expiration date is a critical part of deciding if the product is safe to use and will work as intended," says Ilisa Bernstein, Pharm.D., J.D., Deputy Director of the Office of Compliance in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. "If your medicine has expired, do not use it."

Best Before, Not Bad After

But a large study done by the US Military (who were looking for a way to avoid the enormous expense of shipping and re-shipping medications around the world) found that expiration dates are more of a 'best before' than a 'bad after' date. The study revealed that of 122 drugs tested, 88% of them could have extended their expiry dates by one year. On average, all of the drugs could have extended up to 5 and half years. Some even pointed to a remarkable 23 year shelf life extension possibility!

So, is big pharma just trying to rip you off? Nope. It's just that they have to test the drugs for as long as they print on the label. So if they want to put a 10-year expiry date on the label, they would actually have to wait 10 years before releasing the product, and test for potency at that time.  Since companies are constantly researching and tweaking their formulas, it would mean the time it takes to get a new product to market would be far too long.

Does This Mean You Can Keep Medicine Forever?

I mean, everyone has a friend who always just happens to have a 222 when you find yourself coming down with a headache, right? We asked Pharmacist Victoria Sergeant whether it was safe to dig into their stockpile. I think the most important reason to not stockpile medication is that a medication that may have been safe and effective for you to use in one situation may not be the best option at another point down the road. If we use the 222's as an example, they may be someone's first choice for a headache at one stage of life, but perhaps after being started on blood thinners for a newly diagnosed heart condition a year later, the compounded blood thinning effects of the ASA in the tablets, combined with the newly prescribed blood thinners, may be putting someone at an increased risk of bleeds.

What To Pitch, What To Keep

So what are some general rules you can live by?

    1. If it's been stored below 25°C / 77°F and
    2. it has been sealed the whole time (eg in its blister pack if it is a pill; without cracking the lid if it's a liquid or ointment) and
    3. it's not insulin, antibiotics, or eye drops, anticonvulsants, birth control pills, or epinephrine. . .

. . . you might be okay.  In terms of herbal supplements, the higher the quality of the ingredients going in, and the less filler, generally the longer the expiry date can be extended.  Since humidity is the enemy of herbal supplements, we make sure to package femMED's with silica gel packs in them, to absorb moisture that might make the ingredients start to degrade.

If the product is stored in an opaque bottle, kept sealed until you start to use it, and it hasn't visibly or smell-ily started to degrade, you can probably bet on its shelf life extension period being one year with a few notable exceptions - oils and vitamins containing folic acid or vitamins C or D, or live bacteria probiotics. Carefully monitor the expiry dates on prenatal supplements and probiotic supplements.

Your Spring Cleaning Checklist

  1. Liquids are generally not very stable and you want to get rid of those first.
  2. If anything has discolored or separated, say sayonara.
  3. If it's insulin, eye drops, antibiotics, birth control pills, anti-convulsants, or your Epi-Pen, release it.
And hey, if you are well enough to get to the pharmacy, trust us, you're worth the un-expired version of whatever you're looking at. If not, please see rules 1-3 above.

So tell us - what's the longest you've kept something in your medicine cabinet?

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