Photo Credit: Jewish Press

It sits proudly on the shelf of my parent’s medicine cabinet – a peachy pink bottle of Caladryl, with my sister’s name hand written on the label so that it wouldn’t get lost when she took it to sleep away camp.

In the mid 1970s.


And yet, there it is, still sitting in the medicine cabinet more than four decades later. While logic would dictate that that vintage bottle of Caladryl should be ready for the garbage or the museum of antiquated health care products, my mom swears that it is far more effective than any calamine lotion she has bought in recent years. Being somewhat fearful of using lotions that were produced when Richard Nixon ran the Oval Office, I have yet to try the Caladryl, but seeing that bottle does leave me wondering about the expiration dates of various non-food items and just how seriously they should be taken. Are they accurate guidelines designed to ensure our safety? Or are they clever ploys devised by manufacturers looking to drive sales? The answers are definitely not easy to come by and if there is one hard and fast rule when it comes to expiration dates it is that there are no rules and that every item needs to be considered on a case by case basis.

Take medicines, for example. Since 1979, drug manufacturers have been required to label all medications with an expiration date through which full safety and potency can be guaranteed, as reported by Harvard Health. While the FDA’s official position is that medicines should not be taken past their marked expiration dates, its own Shelf Life Extension Program clearly indicates that certain drugs, when properly stored, remain effective even years later. The program, created in 1986, allowed government agencies to recognize significant savings in replacement costs by including expired medications that had been tested and found to be stable and effective in a cache of federally stockpiled drugs to be used in the event of a public health emergency. A report released by the Department of Defense in 2000 noted that FDA testing of expired drugs in the federal stockpile found that the vast majority were still potent, despite having passed their expiration dates, saving taxpayers approximately $100 million in replacement costs over a three year period.

While 90 percent of the medicines tested by the FDA listed in that study were found to be fully effective well over ten years past their expiration dates, there are certain drugs that just don’t have that kind of longevity. Liquids lose their potency much faster than other type of medications, as do insulin, albuterol and nitroglycerin, among others. Eye drops are another item that should probably not be used past its expiration date and it is crucial to keep close tabs on any prescription medications to prevent possible misuse that could lead to addiction or potentially lethal overdoses. It is also important to remember that any medicine will survive the test of time much better if it is kept in a cool, dry place and not in your bathroom medicine cabinet where it is subject to both heat and humidity.

So, can you safely take expired medications and achieve the desired results? In many cases the answer is probably yes, however, the best course of advice is to check with your doctor or pharmacist.

While they seem pretty durable on the outside, kids’ car seats do expire and if you have been saving your old car seats for visits with the grandcuties, chances are excellent that you are out of luck. Car seats need to be replaced every six to eight years, though the reason for that seems to be a little unclear. One school of thought is that the plastic and foam used in car seats degrades because it can be subjected to extreme heat or severe cold on a frequent basis. The other point of view suggests that while the plastic itself is built to last despite fluctuating temperatures, car seat standards continue to evolve, making it important to upgrade every few years in order to be in compliance with local laws.

Most car seats produced in recent years do include an expiration date stamped somewhere on the item, but if your seat doesn’t seem to have one, the best thing to do is to call the manufacturer. Be sure to check that all important date even when buying a new car seat since stores may sometimes be selling older merchandise that can be a few years old. It is extremely important to note that most insurance companies will not cover any of the associated costs if your child is in an expired car seat when an accident occurs.

Although many manufacturers suggest replacing your bike helmet every three to five years, the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute takes a much more lenient stance, saying that any helmet made after 1984 that conforms to ASTM or Snell standards can be safely used. While the foam in a bicycle helmet will not be adversely affected by heat or sweat, the outer plastic shell can be compromised by sunlight, so replace your helmet if the shell starts to crack or fade. And be aware that any helmet that has been worn in a crash should be replaced.

Don’t mess with expiration dates when it comes to sunscreen which are typically effective for three years from the date of manufacture before they start to degrade. While most sunscreens have an expiration date stamped on the bottle, if you happen to buy a bottle that doesn’t, call the manufacturer and ask them for the production date based on whatever codes are printed on the bottle. Bear in mind that a bottle of sunscreen shouldn’t last all that long when applied as directed.

While some recommendations, like throwing out all of your towels every three years or replacing your slippers every six months because despite your best cleaning efforts they still harbor bacteria, seem silly, others appear to be just plain common sense. If you have fire extinguishers in your home, check the expiration dates and replace them accordingly or whenever the pressure gauge is reading low. Smoke detectors should be upgraded every ten years in order to take best advantage of ever-improving life saving technology. And those power strips with surge protectors that we count on to keep all of our devices and electrical appliances up and running? It turns out that their ability to safeguard against surges doesn’t last forever so be sure to replace them every few years to prevent your electrical items from being fried by a spike in power.

So there you have it. While in some cases, vintage items are extremely useful and often valuable, in others it may just be time to bid them a fond farewell and toss them into the nearest trashcan. And if you can’t bear to throw stuff out? Give a yell and I will put you in touch with my parents, who will happily give your well-loved products a good home. Right on the shelf, next to the Caladryl.