How To Tell If Your Vitamins Are Expired + Tips For Making Them Last
Unlike the food in our pantries, we tend to not be as vigilant with the expiration dates of other products (think tampons, essential oils, sunscreen, and even vitamins.) If you've ever stumbled across an old bottle of vitamins and wondered if they were still safe to consume, well, the answer isn't so straightforward.
To help break it down, mbg chatted with doctors and pharmacists about how long vitamins last, whether it's safe to take them when they're expired, and the best tips for storage and disposal.
How long do vitamins last?
"If stored properly, most vitamins have a shelf-life of up to two years," pharmacist Joanna Lewis, PharmD, says. Depending on the supplement's form, storage, and ingredients, though, that date may vary.
Even if the vitamin degrades slightly over time, physician Andrea Paul, M.D., says it "may never truly expire in the sense of losing all of its potency or becoming harmful to consume."
Is it safe to take expired vitamins?
Most people will notice a use-by or sell-by date listed on their vitamin or supplement packaging. While this date can give consumers an idea of when it's time to replace their product, it's not exactly an expiration date like the kind you see on food or other perishable items.
"The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require vitamin supplements to have expiration dates," ophthalmologist Brian Boxer Wachler, M.D., tells mbg. Most companies go through tests to determine how long it will take for their vitamins to lose potency, and that's usually the date you'll see listed.
"Loss of potency can then translate to decreased efficacy or effectiveness," says Javeed Siddiqui, M.D., MPH, chief medical officer at TeleMed2U.
Are there side effects of taking expired vitamins?
According to Lewis, vitamins generally don't go "bad," the way spoiled milk will. In other words, there are no direct side effects from taking vitamins or supplements past their listed use-by date. Since they're less potent, though, you may not get the necessary health benefits needed from the product.
What affects a vitamin's expiration date?
"There can be a great deal of variability in the best-used-by date with vitamins due to the variability in their composition," Siddiqui says. Other things, like how they're packaged and stored, may also alter their shelf life.
Type of vitamin.
Nutrients in hard-tablet form tend to be the most stable, whereas, gummy vitamins are more susceptible to degradation by moisture and temperature, which can decrease their potency. "Generally, tablets and capsules last longer than gummies, tinctures, or liquids," Paul adds.
And if you're taking a powdered vitamin, Lewis says the average expiration date is up to one year after it's opened.
The makeup of the vitamin.
The ingredients inside the vitamin can also be determinants of long or shorter shelf life. "For example, vitamin A is sensitive to degradation by light, whereas probiotics are susceptible to elevated temperatures," Siddiqui says.
Probiotics are made up of live bacteria, so when they're past their expiration date (or don't have an expiration date listed), it's safe to assume the bacteria are dead. According to integrative medicine doctor and mbg Collective member Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., that means the probiotic is ineffective.
The container (and the lid).
To extend the shelf-life of your vitamins, keep the lid sealed until you plan to take them.
How they're stored.
In general, it's recommended to store vitamins in a cool, dark place. "Keeping them away from light, humidity, and heat (don't leave them in a hot car) will extend their shelf life and ensure that they don't degrade faster than the package labeling," Lewis says. "Also, some probiotics and supplements (vitamin E, flaxseed) will last longer if refrigerated, so make sure you honor the requirements on their packaging."
How to dispose of vitamins and supplements.
To properly dispose of vitamins and supplements, follow the instructions on the packaging. If there are no instructions, the FDA says to drop the product off at your local pharmacy, or check to see if the product is safe to flush (here: FDA flush list).
If the product is not safe to flush, follow these FDA recommendations for disposal:
- Crush the product up and mix it with coffee grounds, cat litter, or mulch.
- Place the mixture in a sealed bag.
- Dispose of the bag in your trash.
- If your container happened to list personal information, remove it, and recycle the bottle accordingly.
Vitamins may not have the same type of expiration date as your groceries, but it is important to pay attention to what they're made of, what form they come in, and how they're stored to ensure the greatest efficacy.
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