Toss, Freeze, or Trash? How to Know When to Let it Go




The eternal dilemma — should you toss that bottle, can, or package that’s been in the drawer for who knows how long? You’d like to trust the expiration date, but these can be alarmingly inaccurate — more like guidelines, really. Understanding date stamps can sometimes mean the difference between sickness and health. 


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires manufacturers to put an expiration date on all prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Generally, it means the medicine is guaranteed to be fully effective up to that date. On the other hand, an expired medicine may work just fine, and it’s unlikely to hurt you.

What you’ll want to do is evaluate the seriousness of your condition. If your life depends on a medication, make sure it is current and operating at full strength. Otherwise, give it a close inspection and use some common sense. Toss liquids or pills that smell bad, capsules that are cracked, and ointments that are hardened. 

So what about those old drugs? Don’t just dump them in your trash or flush them down the toilet. Dispose of them properly at your local pharmacy or through a collection program, like the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day sponsored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.


Packaged foods.
Except for infant formula, there are no federal regulations saying food products have to be date stamped. But many states do have dating requirements.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) lists four types of food product dating:

  • Sell-By. This tells the store how long to display the product for sale. Try to buy the product before this date expires.

  • Best if Used By. For the best flavor or quality, use a product before this date.

  • Use-By. The manufacturer recommends you eat the food before this date for peak quality.

  • Closed or coded dates. These are packing numbers used by the manufacturer.

It can be a confusing exercise decoding the different recommendations, but Consumer Reports suggests you follow sell-by and use-by dates at least on dairy and meat products. Otherwise, it’s a personal choice, often requiring a little background knowledge. For instance, olive oil does not get better with age. Over time, the heart-healthy compounds break down. So if a bottle is date-stamped, especially with a harvest date, let that guide you.


If unopened, most body products and makeup are good for about two to three years after you buy them. One exception is sunscreen, which has an expiration date on the package you should always abide by. The safe lifespan of opened products is surprisingly small. Mascara may be the trickiest, with experts suggesting you toss it after just three months.

The trouble begins as soon as that bath oil, lipstick, cream, or lotion is exposed to the air. Germs hovering over your sink or floating in that public restroom settle in and start to multiply. The longer and more often the container is open, the worse the problem.

Then there are the germs you add to the mix. You naturally have bacteria on your skin, lips, and eyes. If you’re sick, that makes it even worse. And don’t even consider sharing with another person. To minimize all this contamination, replace sponges weekly, wash brushes and other applicators every month, buy pump dispensers when possible, and seal all jars and bottles tightly after each use.

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  • FC&A Staff Writer