As organizers, we are constantly coming across expired goods in people’s homes. Expired beauty products, expired medications, expired food - you name it. It can be easy for people to lose track of expiration dates, and then when they do discover something is past its prime, they’re never quite sure if they should toss it or not. So here’s a little helpful info on expirations – what they really mean, and why they’re important.
Did you know that in the US, expiration dates are not required by law? The only item in the states that is required to have an expiration date is infant formula. All of those other dates – on everything from our yogurt to our pasta - are done voluntarily by the manufacturers.
And a good thing, too! Eating food past it’s expiration date is never a good idea – though many of us do it, thinking we’ll just “chance it.” Because of this gamble with the fates, around 76 million people a year get sick from expired food. True, there are some items (like bread and cereal, for example) that don’t exactly turn into poison the day after the expiration. But even those things can develop things like mold and weevils if left for too long.
Food that has gone bad has an increased chance of giving you something nasty - like a listeria infection – so pay attention to the dates listed, and if you smell that milk, and “aren’t sure” well then toss it! Same goes for meat products and vegetables. In general, it’s best to do a weekly shop for your groceries, so that you never have food that is sitting around for too long. Yes, this can be a pain, but not quite as painful as a night of vomiting.
The USDA provides a handy translation of all the “sell by” and “best before” lingo, which I’ll share here:
• A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
• A "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
• A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
• "Closed or coded dates" are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.
But expirations obviously don’t apply to just food. Another important date to take note of is the one on the side of your medicine bottle. Some medications, if stored properly, can last up to three years after the expiration date. However, it depends on the medication. Some medications can alter over time, and form different, toxic compounds that would be dangerous if ingested. While other meds like insulin and nitroglycerine can lose their potency over time, which means the medicine won’t be as effective. If you have some expired meds you aren’t sure of, take them to a pharmacist and ask. If they aren’t usable, then ask if the pharmacist is he or she has a recycling program. (Disposing of meds in a drain or trash can lead to contamination of water or soil.)
Funnily enough, the expiration dates we tend to pay the least amount of attention to are on the very items we probably use the most – body and beauty products. It can be tricky to see what the issue is with using a lotion or mascara past a certain time – but these dates are also there for a reason. The agents in many anti-aging and acne creams go bad after a certain time, so it’s important to pay attention to any changes in consistency and color. If it looks funny or runny and is past its date – it should be tossed.
Makeup brushes and makeup itself can be crawling with bacteria over long periods of use, which can lead to things like blemishes, or even worse, cold sores and pink-eye. Sunscreen is another big one. If it’s expired, it should probably go. It isn’t worth the risk of a bad burn.
Yes, it can feel wasteful to toss these things – whether they’re food items, antibiotics, or eyeshadow – but it’s definitely a case of better to be safe than sorry. You’re better off spending the few dollars needed to replace the item, than shelling out for a doctor bill!