When Expiration Dates Matter

Woman Looking at Expiration Date of Deli Meat
Many times the expiration date on certain products is more of an indication of diminishing potency levels than an actual discard date. This is often true of over the counter medications and products. The date is more true for products that can be contaminated once opened. This is a page about when expiration dates matter.

Kelly Ann Butterbaugh
July 13, 2011
Can with expiration date printed on it

It was a beautiful sunny day in the Caribbean as my family and I headed to the beach. Before we hit the water, I spent ten minutes covering a wriggling and impatient boy with SPF 50 sunscreen. From there, I argued with him every hour as I "wasted" ten more minutes of his time reapplying the sunscreen. To my dismay, I didn't put a pale skinned youngster to bed that night. Instead, he was a lobster burned from the sun that had permeated his sunscreen. Why? The expiration date of our sunscreen had expired.

Fool Me Twice - Shame on Me

It only took one day to learn my lesson. Now, no matter how much the sunscreen cost, if it's past the expiration date I throw it out. Expiration dates are printed on products to ensure that consumers receive the full benefits of their products. However, there are times when an 80% benefit is acceptable and throwing away a product because of the nearing expiration isn't the best option.


However, in the case of our vacation it's important that we receive 100% of the sunscreen's abilities; therefore, the expiration dates are extremely important to us. It's a call that you're going to have to make.

To Expire or Not to Expire

Over the counter medicines typically do not "go bad" after their expiration dates, but they will lose some potency. However, most studies show that they still retain 90% of their potency five years after their expiration. Examine the importance of the medicine, and determine if you're willing to throw it out or continue to use it. Keep in mind that liquid medicines are less stable than pills, so use your judgment when evaluating the product. If it smells or looks different, discard it. Do not take more than the dosage states in order to make up for the lessened effects.


Most personal care products also lose potency after their expiration dates. Chemicals in the products leach into the packaging or dissipate into the air, leaving the products less effective. Since these aren't medications, you may not notice the lessened effects and may not receive any benefits from the products. Products like toothpaste, skin care, and anti-aging products will fall into this category.

When bacteria can enter the product, adhere to the "after opening" expiration date closely. Makeup should be discarded within three months of opening no matter how expensive. Other products like eye drops, saline solution, and creams can also be bacterial hiding places. While the products still do as they were intended, they may do a little more with age.

What If There's No Date?

The FDA regulates the inclusion of expiration dates. For products that do not require dosage instructions and will hold their effectiveness for three years, the FDA does not require expiration dates. Therefore, some sunscreens may not have one while others will. To avoid any problems with unmarked products, upon purchase use a marker to write the month and day on the product. You'll know when the sunscreen is nearing its three year mark.

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