Let’s say you’re going through your cupboard and happen upon some vitamin supplements that you’d forgotten all about. You can’t even remember how long it’s been since you last used them, but you do remember that you had a good reason for buying them. You wonder: Are these still good to use? Or have they expired?
Not exactly. While prescription and over-the-counter drugs are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to print expiration dates on their labels, vitamin manufacturers are not required to do so. (However, even when it comes to FDA-approved drugs, the expiration dates may not be what they seem; medical authorities say that expired medicine is generally safe to take.)
Vitamin supplements are likely to include a manufacturing date on the label. Some may also add a “best by” or “use by” date. As a general rule, vitamins will retain their maximum potency for up to two years after the manufacturing date, provided they are stored properly. You also have to consider the form of your supplement – is it liquid, softgel, or powder? The form plays a role in how long it remains potent and effective. For example: chewable vitamins tend to absorb moisture and break down more rapidly than other forms, while regular vitamin capsules break down far more slowly.
If you find that your vitamins have expired, there’s no real reason to fret. While the potency of your vitamin’s ingredients will decrease over time, you usually have up to two years beyond the expiration date before that starts to happen.
This depends on several factors, including the vitamin form and how the vitamins are stored. Chewable vitamins absorb moisture and tend to break down quickly; capsules, absorbing less moisture, tend to remain potent for longer. Furthermore, it’s important to store your vitamins in a cool and dry place – more on that below. Care/of products should be used within four months of receiving them to ensure maximum potency.
First things first: Check the label. If there’s no manufacture date, “best by” date, or “use by” date, you can call the manufacturer. You can also use your better judgment. How does the supplement look? How does it smell? Different from how you remember? If so, it’s probably best to avoid using them.
Generally speaking, yes, it’s safe to take expired vitamins. Depending on how long ago they expired, though, you may not get much benefit from using them. Vitamins past their expiration date tend to lose potency. While a vitamin that’s lost its potency isn’t hazardous for your health, it’s not much use to you.
Oil-based and liquid-based supplements are another matter. They can become rancid after the expiration date, and it’s best to avoid them. (Based on the smell alone, you’ll have no trouble avoiding them.) As a general principle, if your vitamins have changed color or have a funny smell, you shouldn’t take them. Buy a new pack instead.
You’re not likely to experience negative side effects from expired vitamins. But if your expired vitamins smell or look a little off, it’s best to dispose of them and get a new pack.
If you’ve decided to dispose of your expired vitamins, it’s important to do so properly. Don’t simply throw them in the trash where they may be accessible for kids or family pets. And don’t flush them down the toilet, since doing so can contaminate your water. Instead, when throwing them away, you can do what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and FDA recommend: Mix the vitamins with another substance – possibly coffee or kitty litter – and place this mixture into a sealed plastic bag or container. Then you can safely throw it in the trash.
There are other options, too. One of the best ways to get rid of expired vitamins is to participate in one of the drug drop-off days that take place in larger cities and towns throughout the year. Per the EPA, these events are the best-case scenario for disposing of expired vitamins, medications, and drugs. Check your local government’s website to see about such an event in your locality.
If your city or town doesn’t have drop-off events, you can always bring the vitamins back to the store you bought them from. If it has a pharmacy on-site, the pharmacists will likely be able to help you dispose of your supplements.
It’s best to store vitamins in a cool, dry place – away from moisture and away from direct sunlight. The medicine cabinet in your bathroom may be a convenient place to store your vitamins, but it’s far from ideal. Think of all the heat and humidity your vitamins will be subject to! The same applies to the kitchen: It may be a convenient spot, but it’s an area where your vitamins will be exposed to more heat and humidity than it will be in other rooms. Consider putting your vitamins in a closet or a bedroom drawer. You should also keep them in their original containers, if possible.
There are some vitamins whose potency is especially affected by too much light. Vitamins A and D, for example, will start to lose potency after too much light exposure. Furthermore, there are some vitamins for which refrigeration is recommended. For example, refrigeration has been shown to prolong the potency of fish oil, vitamin E, flaxseed, and probiotics.
If you happen upon some vitamins that past their expiration date, you don’t necessarily have to toss them. Depending on how long after the expiration date you find them, they might still possess their original potency; this will be true for up to two years past the manufacture date. However, beyond two years, they’ll start to lose their effectiveness, and you may be better off with a new pack. If you are taking a certain nutrient to address low blood levels of a nutrient or if you are pregnant, taking expired supplements are not recommended. In general the best rule of thumb to follow is to replace them with new ones to ensure proper doses and potency. To help your vitamins maintain their potency, be sure to store them properly. If your vitamins start to smell or look a bit off, you should properly dispose of them, following the steps outlined above.