Are medicine expiration dates too soon?

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s health section on May 8, 2013.

Most drugs are effective long after their expiration date, a 2012 study found. (Photo: Kurt Rogers, SFC)
Most drugs are effective long after their expiration date, a 2012 study found. (Photo: Kurt Rogers, SFC)

In most medicine cabinets there are at least a few products that could kindly be described as vintage. But how old is too old for medications and other health products?

Drug manufacturers, which are legally required to put expiration dates on products sold in the United States – dates until which they guarantee the drugs have full potency – sell some of their products short, apparently.

A 2012 Archives of Internal Medicine study looked at eight medications with 14 active ingredients that had supposedly expired between 28 and 40 years ago. All the drugs were in their original, unopened containers, and researchers discovered that the vast majority still had levels of active ingredients within the FDA’s acceptable range.

Here are the numbers from the study, as well as how long other manufacturers guarantee their health products are safe and effective.


The number of active ingredients out of 14 tested in the study that still had at least 90 percent of the potency advertised on the label. These active ingredients include the painkillers codeine and acetaminophen, plus caffeine, as well as compounds that treat insomnia, anxiety and arthritis.


The number of drugs in the study that significantly disintegrated over time: aspirin and amphetamine. A separate FDA study noted that the expiration date is also critical for insulin, nitroglycerin and liquid antibiotics.


The number of years the protective potency of sunscreen lasts, according to the Mayo Clinic.

2 to 3

The number of years most toothpaste companies guarantee the active ingredients in their products will be at full strength.


The number of years many contact lens makers guarantee the lenses will be sterile, if they’ve been in the sealed package the whole time. This amount of time can vary depending on the type of lens and the container.