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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Expiration Dates*


*But were afraid to ask.


It started with the sunscreen.

Scrutinizing a jumble of half-used bottles and tubes in search of sun-protection, I noticed 3 of every 4 had passed their expiration dates. One bottle of Coppertone (SGP) went back as far as April 2004.

I know enough to appreciate that a 5-year-old product is a sure toss, but what about the untouched $9.85 tube of Neutrogena Sun Block (JNJ) with the September 2008 expiration? Or the nearly full Banana Boat (ENR) that expired in March of this year?

I got the skinny from Anne Russell, my source/authority on all things health- and body-related. She's a longtime fitness buff and editor-in-chief of VIV Magazine.

"Yes, sunscreen actually does break down," she said. "Sometimes as quickly as after an hour or 2 on your skin, but that's a different scary story. Bottom line: It gradually loses efficacy, so if you want to keep using it, assume that 30 has dropped to 15 if it's over 6 months old and so on."

This got me thinking about other products. Insect repellent, for instance. Checking the cupboard in my downstairs bathroom yielded 3 vintage cans and bottles. One appeared to be full.

"Now THAT stuff never goes bad, I think, hence the Hazmat disposal status," Anne said. "If you're worried, replace, but you'd probably be safe (relatively speaking) with one bottle of DEET for the rest of life. Use it very sparingly and that life will probably be longer."

Keep in mind, I don't part with things easily. I once moved houses and packed a $1.29 box of Ronzoni lasagna, finally throwing it away 5 years later. But one thing my week's mission made me see is that failing to check the supplies before heading to the store is a sure-fire way to waste money.

In that downstairs bathroom alone, I'd uncovered 37 expired health and beauty-related products with a value of at least $200. The prize was a bottle of Ipecac that expired in January of the year 2000. Hey, I know I am not alone! Some people are worse. Witness this!

So what's the difference between expiration and sell-by dates? Which ones really matter?

This terrific Howcast video makes sense of a lot of it.

Turns out, I could have eaten the lasagna, but it may not have tasted so great. Packaged, canned and frozen foods seem to last forever. It's just the quality that degrades.

Eggs are good for up to 5 weeks past the date stamped on the carton. Canned foods last forever. (So if you want to donate that year-old tuna to the local food pantry, don't feel guilty about it.) Dairy products are good for at least a week past their stamped date, if they stay refrigerated.

Meats are another story. Anything perpetually frozen remains safe, but who knows how good it will taste?

Here's a quick checklist of other products:

1. Beer:
It's a taste thing. According to Consumerist, many bottles of beer are imprinted with a coded expiration date that -- since it looks like hieroglyphics to the average consumer -- will make it hard to steer clear of the stale stuff. The code works like so: "Letters from A-M represent the month of the year. The next 4 digits are the day and year the beer was first brewed, and the last 2 letters are the state code where it was brewed."

So that bottle of Sam Adams (SAM) that says A0699MA? You might want to avoid it.

2. Soda:
Bottlers play the sell-by game -- soda doesn't go bad, it just starts to taste bad. The same goes for tobacco.

3. Condoms: Short answer: Don't play with fire. Condoms lose their elasticity as they age, and are therefore much more likely to break.

4. Prescription Drugs:
It's not completely cut and dried, but, according to the folks at Harvard Medical School, "the expiration date doesn't really indicate a point at which the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use... [In fact,] much of the original potency still remains even a decade after the expiration date. Placing a medication in a cool place, such as a refrigerator, will help a drug remain potent for many years."

Harvard. What do they know?

5. Batteries, disposable cameras:
Anyone who's tried to use a flashlight that's been in storage for a year or 2 knows firsthand that batteries dry up and stop working. The same goes for that camera you left in the glove-box "just in case."

6. Vitamins:
Best to pay attention. They tend to remain stable for 4 or 5 years, according to the FDA -- but variables such as packaging, storage temperature, and capsule composition can affect their stability. Determine on a case-by-case basis.

I could go on forever. Here's a laundry list compiled by the folks at Real Simple.

Happy tossing!

What's the oldest product in your home? What's your policy for using things after their sell-by date? Weigh in on The Exchange.
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