Glass canisters with white tops, filled with assorted grains.

A new season is the ideal time to clear out your pantry, fridge and bathroom cabinets. But as you probably know, “best by,” “sell by” and “expiration” dates can confuse your save or purge choices.

To clarify, here’s the dish on what you should know from Memorial Hermann dermatologists, dieticians and pharmacists.

Beauty and Skincare

Look for a tiny image of an open jar with a number on it, such as 12M. That’s the suggested Period After Opening (PAO) or how many months skin care products will last once unsealed.

Not every product has a PAO. “It’s strictly voluntary,” says Dr. Vicki Carr, dermatologist at Spring Dermatology. “No US laws require beauty brands to specify a shelf or expiration date.”

When in doubt, she suggests checking a brand’s website, which may indicate shelf life. “In addition, if a product’s color, consistency or odor changes, it’s time to throw it out,” she says.

Otherwise replace these products after these times:

  • 3 Months: Mascara. Mascara wands are exposed to bacteria whenever used, and eyes are more vulnerable to infection.
  • 12 Months: Foundation, powders and creams
  • 18 Months: Lipsticks
  • 36 Months: Sunscreen

How to Extend Products’ Life

Use an applicator, brush, scoop or makeup sponge rather than your fingers. “Dipping fingers in products can contaminate them with germs,” Dr. Carr says. Adding saliva or water also adds germs–and risks of inflammation.

Wash applicators and scoops after every use, and brushes once weekly with gentle soap, isopropyl alcohol or cleansers specifically for that purpose. “I prefer brush cleaners, because they’re formulated to clean and get rid of bacteria,” she says. Buy disposable sponges to use one time only. And wash your hands before using any cosmetic.

Avoid heat. “A makeup bag in your car is not a good idea,” Dr. Carr says. “Heat promotes bacterial growth and breakdown of products.” Store beauty wares in dark, dry places. “Sunlight breaks down products, and moisture breeds germs.”

Don’t poo-poo preservatives. "Preservatives protect against bacterial overgrowth," she says.

Streamline your beauty wares. They seem to breed like bunnies – just ask your mate. Everyone needs cleanser, fragrance-free moisturizer and sunscreen. But toner and 30 lipstick shades? Not necessarily, says she says.

Kitchen Pantry and Fridge

Heed package dates. But when in doubt, use these guidelines.

  • 0 Days: Funky food is dead food. “If food doesn’t smell or look good, it should be tossed,” says clinical dietician Gabriela Gardner at Digestive Disease Center at Memorial Hermann - Texas Medical Center. Beware of darkened colors and limp or saggy textures in produce. White or green fuzz on cheese or fruit is inedible mold, and a slick film coating on meat and cold cuts is bacteria, such as pseudomonas, which can grow in the refrigerator – and quickly.
  • 1-2 Days: Fresh fish, poultry and meat in the refrigerator must go. Also refrigerate fresh produce, meat, eggs, and dairy products as soon as possible after purchase.
  • 3-5 Days: Opened packages of lunch meat should be consumed.
  • 1 Month: Unopened cold-cut packages–as long as the texture, aroma and color are good and the expiration date has not passed.
  • 4-5 Weeks: To gain this time for eggs, store them (along with milk, dairy and fish) at the back of the fridge, not on the door, since each time the door is opened the temperature changes, decreasing the lifespan of your food.
  • 2-3 Months: Frozen salmon, trout, black cod, whitefish and other fatty fishes (that is, over 5% fat by weight) deteriorate quickest.
  • 6 Months: Frozen tilapia, snapper, swordfish, bass, catfish, haddock, halibut, mahi-mahi and other “lean” fish (that is, under 5% fat by weight) can last this long. If you’re unsure about a particular fish, ask the fishmonger.
  • 1 Year: Bottled ground herbs and spices, stored in airtight containers away from humidity, moisture or heat (70 degrees or above), can keep. They should not be refrigerated, which introduces moisture. “When they’re open to oxygen they lose their antioxidant benefits so storage is key,” Gardner says. “If the smell is gone, the color changed or there are clumps (which indicate moisture), they’re no longer good and should be thrown out.”
  • 1-2 Years: Bottled whole spices, stored similarly, are long-lasters.

Other Grocery Guidelines

Best by, sell by, use by and expiration dates are not synonymous. “All four terms are more about quality than establishing when food is no longer good for consumption,” Gardner says.

“Best by” guides stores and consumers on expectations of food at its prime. “Sell by” helps stores know when to remove fresh meat, fruit and vegetables from shelves.  Use by is the date after which items should not be consumed, based on quality.

With infant formula, a use-by date always should be heeded. “That is about safety and means babies should not be given the formula. Period,” Gardner says.

Expiration dates are used by manufacturers of prepackaged and canned food. Those items won’t taste or smell their best by then, but possibly can be eaten. “But any can that’s swollen, rusted or dented should be pitched,” Gardner says. “It likely contains pathogenic bacteria that will make you sick.”

Cereal, rice, pasta and other dried foods could be OK past the expiration date – if unopened and stored in cool, dry places. “Still, the quality and taste might not be at their peak.”

Airtight containers can extend opened dry goods’ life by limiting exposure to air and moisture. “The latter spoils food quickly,” Gardner says.

When you buy canned items, put them behind already purchased items, so you use the oldest first.


Once you open medication and supplement bottles, their contents start losing power.

“Opened and expired drugs can degrade to the point you’re not getting the right dose and function,” says Rodney Cox, RPh. MS., Director of Pharmacy Services at Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center. “This may lead you to take more – and ingredients within the drug can be caustic to your liver, kidneys and gut.”

Houston’s heat and humidity only make this worse, he says.

Antibiotics have added dangers: You should follow not only instructions “100%” by taking the full-course, but also honor the expiration date. “If the medication is used beyond its expiration date, you have the additional risk of getting a sub-optimal therapeutic dose and the bug becomes stronger.” Cox says.

This fuels anti-microbial resistance not only for you but others.

For drugs other than antibiotics, medications may last longer than the standard one-year pharmacies list on bottles. If you’ve been given the original container, rather than the amber cylinder most pharmacies have, look for longer expiration dates. These only are valid if medicine is stored in optimal conditions, away from heat and humidity. “That’s why your bathroom may not always be the best place to keep drugs,” he says.

“What you do with drugs after they expire can be tricky,” Cox says. “If you leave them in your medicine cabinet, someone else might take them.” And you should not pitch them in your trash or flush them down your toilet. “We don’t want them polluting our water supply or landfills, which could harm others.”

Check with your local pharmacy if you’re unsure about using or disposing of a drug. Some drugs should be disposed of by pharmacies, including unused opioids, such as OxyContin, Vicodin, codeine and morphine; other painkillers and controlled or addictive substances.

Should you have concerns or a bad reaction to a drug, Cox says, “The phone number for American Association of Poison Control Centers – (800) 222-1222 — is always good to have handy.”

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