By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Tribune Newspapers
4:25 PM EDT, May 25, 2011
There are telltale signs that a product has gone bad. Moldy bread. Clumpy milk. The layer of fur blanketing the cream cheese. But what about the toothpaste sitting in your pantry for years after a zealous bulk purchase? Or those condoms waiting optimistically in your nightstand for longer than you wish you recall?
Many such products carry expiration dates, but thrifty shoppers often wonder if they really must toss dated items that still "seem" perfectly fine. After all, how can headache medicine stop working from one month to the next? And why should you believe the expiration date on one lotion when another doesn't carry one at all?
The Food and Drug Administration requires that expiration dates be printed on all prescription and over-the-counter drugs, but not on cosmetics — unless the cosmetics are also considered drugs, such as toothpaste with fluoride, anything with sunscreen, anti-dandruff shampoo and antiperspirant. But even then, over-the-counter drugs without dose limitations don't have to carry expiration dates if tests have proven they're stable for at least three years, which is why one sunscreen may have a date while another won't.
Expiration doesn't necessarily mean the product turns putrid or ineffective once the date passes. Manufacturers set expiration by choosing a date and conducting stability tests to ensure the product will still be good at that time.
Expiration dates tend to be conservative to account for a wide range of storage conditions and consumer handling, said Dr. John Bailey, chief scientist with the Personal Care Products Council, an industry trade group. But for some products there can be a cushion. Here's a guide to products that commonly carry expiration dates.
Click this photo gallery to find out when these nonfood items expire.