Is it time for a cabinet clean out?

Jessica Young

Digging out a bottle of Calamine lotion from the medicine cabinet, you glance at the date stamped on the side. Expired in 2004? Hmm. Will it still do the trick for little Connor’s wicked case of poison ivy?

Bathroom shelves are cluttered with medications, lozenges, solutions, vitamins, ointments and cosmetics. And with items that are used sparingly, it’s tricky to know when to dump and restock unless it turned an ugly black or is emitting a foul odor. But how do you get the most out of your purchase while ensuring you’re safe to consume or use something past the expiration date?

“There’s no hard and fast rule in terms of when you should toss things. There’s no blanket kind of answer,” said Leslie Ferguson, pharmacist at Family Pharmacy in Warrenville. “The manufacturer’s date guarantees potency and safety, but that has nothing to do with how long something is actually good for. It’s their way of saying ‘This is when we want you to buy our product again.’”

According to Ferguson, 95 percent of items are good long after their time stamp provided they are appropriately stored in the meantime.

“If you keep it in an optimal place, it can stick around much longer,” she said.

Pain relievers:

“Bayer did a study and found that its medicine was good for four years past their three-year expiration date,” Ferguson said. “A pharmacy school in Wisconsin said it was good for 15 years. So stuff like Tylenol, aspirin and Ibuprofen are going to have a really long shelf life.”

Ingestible liquids:

“But if you’re drinking from bottle of cough syrup or Pepto-Bismol, it actually might not last as long as it says because the likelihood of contamination is greater,” Ferguson said. “If you’re talking a tablet or capsule, there’s not much you can do to that. But you have to worry more when your lip is touching the dosing cup, which goes back to the rim of the bottle.”

Ointments:

“The same goes for stuff like Neosporin. You’re using your finger to rub some of it on an infected or injured area and then squeezing more onto the same finger,” Ferguson said. “Although it’s an antibiotic and should technically kill germs that might be transferred to the neck of the tube, it’s still good practice to replace it. Don’t go much past a couple years after the expiration date.”

Solutions:

“In terms of contact solution, that is something I would follow hard and fast with the date,” Ferguson said. “I wear contacts, and I follow that to the T. Even with refresher drops. Because the eyes are so sensitive, and it can be pretty devastating if something goes wrong. For other solutions, make sure they aren’t getting cloudy when they’re supposed to be clear.”

“With hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol, you’re probably safe for six months beyond the date,” said Barbara Allanach, director of health services at Benedictine University in Lisle. “But that’s only if you keep the bottle immaculate.”

Tablets and chewables:

“I would still use Tums a couple of years later,” Ferguson said. “The calcium carbonate is just chalk anyway. It’s not going to grow bacteria. If it takes moisture, it could become gummy, or if it gets too dry, it might be brittle. But there’s certainly nothing wrong with it.”

“The things that tend to come in bubble packs where you pop them out, those stay fresher,” Allanach said.

Bandages:

“For Band-Aids, the adhesive might dry up if they’re sitting for a long time, but certainly nothing is wrong with the gauze,” Ferguson said.

Cosmetics and hygiene products:

“A lot of dermatologists will tell you to get new shampoos and face wash and stuff after six months, but I think that’s a little conservative,” Ferguson said. “You could get skin infections from using a product for a really long time. But you’re likely to use it up before that’s a danger.”

“With mascara, definitely toss it every six months because you’re introducing germs and bacteria into the product every time you use the wand,” Allanach said. “And especially right after you get over an eye infection or conjunctivitis, just like you would a toothbrush after you have a cold.”

Topical lotion:

“Calamine lotion — or anything going on topically — you can keep for a couple of years, unless it starts to separate,” Ferguson said.

Sunscreen and bug spray:

“That has active ingredients that can affect the protection given after a certain period,” Allanach said. “I store mine in the fridge over the winter. But you want to use that up at the beginning of the next summer because SPF 30 that’s three years old isn’t going to do much. With bug spray, though, you shouldn’t have any problems.”

Miscellaneous:

“Pump lotion is better than stuff in a jar because there isn’t contamination,” Allanach said. “For vitamins, the smell is going to be the biggest indicator. If tubes are getting nasty or cracked or rusty, get rid of them. And always strictly follow the date on inhalers.”

Generally though, Allanach adheres to the “when in doubt, throw it out” philosophy.

“Go through everything once a year, and even though that gallon of peroxide from Costco is three-quarters full, throw it out,” she said. “It’s cheap. And better safe than sorry.”

Elaine Rodriguez, director of pharmacy at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, said you should adhere to expiration dates with some consistency.

“You might lose some of the potency,” she said. “You have an expectation of what it will do, and you may not get the same relief.”

Ferguson agreed.

“Most drugs take a long time to degrade, so it’s unlikely that it will harm you after the expiration date,” she said. “At the very worst, you won’t get the full dose. Maybe 95 percent of it.”

-- Warrenville Press