SINCE I AM FAMOUS among my family for iffy waste-not frugality–cutting the mold from “perfectly fine” bread or cheese, for instance–my daughter was alarmed when I dug an ancient bottle of ibuprofen out of the glovebox during a long headache of a car trip this summer. Urged to check the expiration date, I told her that almost no medicine expires per se, and she decided I was too insane to argue with.
I recalled this factoid from a long-ago interview with a pharmacologist, and when my daughter scoffed, I scrounged the web and found that indeed there have since been studies confirming that expiration dates are, to say the least, overeager. Although the FDA‘s website cautions consumers sternly against taking expired meds, it was an FDA study that first exposed the dubiousness of drug expiration dates. Conducted at the behest of the Department of Defense (which was hoping to salvage warehouses’ worth of stockpiled medications), the analysis of 122 overage remedies–prescription and over-the-counter medications up to 15 years past their pull date–found that almost 90 percent of them retained acceptable potency. A more recent study from the Universities of California at San Francisco and Irvine looked at 14 active ingredients in eight prescription drugs that were 28 to 40 years past the discard date, and found that 12 of them still packed 90 percent or more of their pharmacological punch. Granted, in the first study, the drugs had been stored unopened in an ideal environment (i.e., not as half-used bottles at the back of a medicine cabinet subject to daily steamings) but not so with the second study–authors were “unable to confirm ideal storage conditions”, and most of the drugs still came out kicking.
Since drugs don’t go “bad” in the same sense that food does–no fostering of malevolent microorganisms, transmuting into gut-wrenching poisons–expired drugs won’t actively hurt you (with the possible exception of tetracycline–researchers disagree on whether it’s dangerous if it degrades). The only danger comes from not getting enough of the active ingredients to achieve the desired effect.
So, common sense: for anything your health truly depends on–heart medication, insulin, antibiotics–don’t risk coming up short: play it safe with only current supplies. Go similarly conservative with solutions like eye drops, which may rely on age-vulnerable preservatives to prevent contamination. Last, if a medication looks funky–discolored, powdery pill surface, separated suspensions, formerly clear liquids now cloudy–and the ick factor alone doesn’t deter you, consider that its appearance is telling you something about how not-well it has held up. But in general, for staples like decongestant, skin creams, antacids, allergy pills, cough and cold preps, stomach soothers, most painkillers (aspirin was one of the two compounds that clocked in at less than 90 percent potency in the UC study)–in short, most of the standbys stocking the average medicine cabinet–you can wing it with what’s on hand. They will most likely have all the pharmaceutical muscle they need for years, and maybe years, to come.