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5 expired products in your home to watch out for

Rules for products you didn't even know had expiration dates

Expired products in your home to watch out for Credit: Getty Images / KenTannenbaum

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Whether you’re diving head-first into spring cleaning or if being in quarantine has made you particularly fastidious, you’ve probably had a moment where you’ve stared at a past-due expiration date and done some mental math about whether or not that product has actually expired. Some tend to take expiration dates as gospel, others view them as guidelines, and those opinions might change based on which product you’re currently mulling over, be it spinach, sinus medicine, or soap.

As a refresher course, we’ve researched some FDA guidelines about different common household products that have expiration dates, from food to cosmetics, and compiled what we’ve found here.

1. Hand sanitizer

Hand Sanitizer
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Hand sanitizer can lose its alcohol content over time—if it drops below 60%, it won't be an effective disinfectant.

Let’s start off with sanitizer, since the current coronavirus outbreak has left everyone keenly aware of how gross their hands can get. The FDA recommends using sanitizers that contain at least 60% alcohol. Because alcohol is a volatile compound and can evaporate, the potency of the sanitizer will decrease over time, especially after the seal on the package is broken.

On average, hand sanitizer can remain effective for about three years, though that figure can differ greatly based on the formulation, packaging, rate of use, and environmental factors. For that reason, this is one of the instances where it’s probably best to adhere to the expiration date more strictly. The older hand sanitizer gets, the lower its overall alcohol content will likely be—and the worse it will actually perform at sanitizing surfaces.

If you're looking for new hand sanitizer, we're keeping an up-to-date list of retailers that still have it in stock.

2. Household cleaners

Cleaning products
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Cleaning products can also expire, but in most cases that just means reduced efficacy. The exception is disinfectants, which won't be able to kill germs if they're too old.

Like hand sanitizers, people have been turning to household cleaners as a means of countering COVID-19. While most cleaners can be effective at washing it away, others also contain active disinfecting properties as well—and the degree to which the expiration date matters for each is very different.

Household cleaners are often effective at scrubbing surfaces due to volatile chemicals in their formulas. Since volatile components degrade over time, an old household cleaner that’s past its expiration date will likely start to clean less well over time. Expiration dates for household cleaners can vary heavily based on the product and manufacturer, but typically seem to be in the one- to two-year range.

So what’s the worst that can happen if you find yourself with expired cleaner? In most cases, like for detergents or soaps, the worst that might happen is it’ll require a little more elbow grease to clean off stubborn stains. However, if the cleaner is specifically one that’s meant to disinfect an area, it’s probably best to not trust it if it’s past its expiration date. Like hand sanitizer, once it falls below a certain potency, it’s simply not going to kill germs with the efficacy you’d want to feel safe about that surface.

3. Cosmetics

Cosmetics
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When cosmetics expire they often lose their texture, color, or smell—but in some cases can become overrun with microorganisms.

This one surprised us. Typically when we're covering cosmetics we're more concerned about their effectiveness than their expiration dates. But cosmetics are one of the more important items to check for spoilage.

Why? Well, the main concern for expired cosmetic products is that their preservatives degrade over time, often faster in extreme temperatures. Those preservatives are important, because they help staunch the growth of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. Every time you touch a cleanser or use an applicator, you’re potentially introducing harmful microorganisms to that product. If those microorganisms aren’t neutralized by preservatives, they can multiply and cause infections on later use.

There are also other cases where the components of your cosmetics can break down and render the product less effective than normal: Emulsions can separate over time and with enough time or temperature the color, texture, or smell of the product might change.

If you’re worried about your cosmetics, there are some best practices to follow:

  • Eye-area cosmetics tend to have shorter shelf lives than other products, which may cause eye infections that can be serious. Be especially wary of the expiration date of these products and make sure to store them in a clean area with a relatively stable temperature. If your mascara gets dry, you should throw it away.
  • Don’t share makeup—you may also be sharing an infection!
  • Clean containers and applicators after use and make sure they’re kept clean when not in use.

4. Medications

Medicine
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Medicine can either be ineffective or toxic once it's past its expiration date.

Medications also have expiration dates and they’re a bit tricker than some other categories we’ve covered. Expired medical products can be less effective or even risky due to changes in their chemical composition over time or a decrease in their potency. Certain expired meds are at risk of bacterial growth. Weak antibiotics can fail to treat infections, leading to serious illness and antibiotic resistance. This is definitely an area where you should follow the expiration date to the letter.

If your medicine is past its expiration date and you need to get rid of it, don’t just throw it away. Certain medications can be fatal to animals or people if not disposed of properly. If your medicine is safe to throw away, it’s recommended you mix them with something unpalatable, like used kitty litter, then seal them in a bag first. Some especially hazardous drugs have specific instructions to flush them down the sink or toilet. If you’re unsure how to dispose of your medicine specifically, you can check the FDA’s resource on the subject for more information.

5. Food

Food
Credit: Getty Images / Noel Hendrickson

"Best if used by," "Expires on" and other dates on food are general guidelines. When in doubt, trust your eyes and nose.

Food is one area where it’s more or less OK to trust your gut. Most companies apply dates at their own discretion and for their own criteria. Some products use phrases like “Best if used by,” while others specifically use words like “expire” or “expiration.” According to the FDA, there aren’t hard rules about what terms to use and what dates are chosen. This is one area where people tend to throw products away prematurely, leading to unnecessary food waste.

The guidelines for when to keep or throw away food are largely self-evident: You should discard food if it’s abnormally soft, discolored, moldy, or has a strong unpleasant smell. This is true regardless of what date is printed on the packaging.

While expiration dates for food are largely just rough estimates that you should override with your own eyes and nose, they can still be helpful guidelines. If you’re wondering about how long something can keep for, the FDA has a resource, Foodkeeper, which is a library of general guidelines for how long different food items are likely to keep.

If you’re concerned with keeping food fresher for longer, even past their printed-on dates, the main piece of advice is to freeze early and often. When you do freeze foods, it’s a good habit to mark the food’s package with the date you froze the item as well as a general date you should throw it away.

The bottom line

Conclusion
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Expiration dates are often a guideline, not a hard and fast rule. When in doubt, research a specific product for more information.

Depending on the product in question, an expiration date can be a rough guideline or a more hard cut-off point. When you’re evaluating a product’s freshness, it’s a good idea to research what might happen if that product is actually past its prime. In some cases being past expiration means a long, slow decline in efficacy. In others, it can be a relatively short degradation process with moderate to severe consequences. When in doubt, it’s good to take to the internet and just find out for sure from a trusted source.

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