Why hoarding pills in your medicine cabinet is a bad idea

  • Research shows that 74% of people have expired medications in their medicine cabinet.
  • But do drugs really expire? Experts say no for the most part, they just lose a bit of power.
  • A better place to store medications (as well as makeup) is in a cooler, drier room.

    In a new investigationmost people admitted to having expired medications in their medicine cabinet, and many didn’t even know about the medications can expire. Yes, everything in it has an expiration date, and we mean everything: looking at you, non-sticky bandages in grandma’s bathroom. What should you keep, what should you throw away, and where should you really store those orange pill bottles?

    💊 Science explains the world around us. We’ll help you make sense of it all.

    Market research firm OnePoll conducted the new survey on behalf of US drugstore chain Walgreens. This is not scientific research, but a marketing exercise in which the company polled 2,000 US respondents. Among this group, the average number of visits to the medicine cabinet each year is 468, so more than once a day overall. (The “normal” number of toilet trips per day is up to 10which means many trips don’t involve diving into the cabinet.)

    According to the survey, the average American medicine cabinet contains 15 items. Of these items, 54% of people said they keep products in them for guests only. (Must be those shell-shaped soaps, right? nobody have you ever used any of these?) In an interview in November, Northwestern Memorial Hospital pharmacy resident Matthew Boyd listed four basic things he thinks everyone should have around: acetaminophen (or Tylenol), an antihistamine, antacids and a multivitamin.

    In the survey, 55% of respondents admitted that they hadn’t even checked the expiration dates of most items in their medicine cabinets; seventy-four percent did not replace items that are likely expired. It’s easy to look in there and think your bottle of acetaminophen or antacids is “probably fine” because they’re dry pills that seem unchanged over long periods of time.

    Although these pills do not visibly go bad, their effectiveness can really drop. If your meds have been sitting around in the medicine cabinet for a few years, you might end up taking a dose that’s only 80% effective compared to its past effectiveness. But is it the same as drugs that actually expire in the sense of going bad?

    As it turns out, no!

    “It’s true that a drug’s effectiveness may diminish over time, but much of the original potency still remains a decade past the expiration date,” according to a September 2019 article published in African Health Sciences. “With the exception of nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics, most drugs last as long as those tested by the military. Placing a drug in a cool place, such as a refrigerator, will help a drug stay strong for many years.

    Ironically, the secret to a better medicine cabinet is simply emptying the medications. But medications aren’t the only things you should get out of the bathroom. Due to the heat and humidity of your shower, many skincare and make-up products should not be stored in the medicine cabinet or anywhere else in the bathroom. If you’re interested in the long-term viability of your produce, a cooler room, or even the refrigerator, may be the trick.

    For some liquid products that, uh, Touch your body-like nasal sprays, mascara, or topical ointments, you should exercise much more discretion when deciding to throw things away. As an actor Kurt Braunohler written in the new humorous haiku book Eating salad drunk“What’s a jar lip balm? Just ChapStick with my filthy fingers in it.

    Other things, like hydrogen peroxide, expire in the most literal chemical sense. About six months after opening, hydrogen peroxide loses almost all of its effectiveness as a disinfectant, according to Health Line. It’s a matter of chemical reaction when ordinary air hits and reacts with liquid. So it will never look funny or musty, but it will no longer do the job you need it to do. Throw it away and get a new bottle if you’re not sure.

    Some medications are simply not appropriate to take later, such as prescription medications for conditions you no longer have or antibiotics that you should have finished as the doctor told you. Or maybe you’re clearing out a deceased person’s belongings or find yourself in a situation where you just don’t want to keep medicine bottles around. What should you do with them?

    It’s common to just throw those bottles away or rinse them out, but the best thing, hypothetically, is to find a permanent or periodic solution. Resumption of medication where you know the medicine will be destroyed. This prevents chemicals from seeping into groundwater, for example.

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