If you just realized that daily vitamin you’ve been taking actually expired months ago, there’s no need to panic. The expiration date listed on vitamins is based on potency, not safety. As long as there is no mold growing on your vitamins, you can breathe easy. You might not reap the same benefit from those pills, but you also likely haven’t been putting your health at risk.
Expiration Dates on Vitamins
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require expiration dates on dietary supplements, including vitamins and minerals. Manufacturers may choose to print them on products—and if so, they may be phrased as “expires on”, “best by”, or “use by”.
In any case, if a manufacturer does choose to include a date, the FDA requires they have “valid data demonstrating that it is not false or misleading.” In other words, manufacturers should have internal research verifying that potency is maintained through that date.
Are Expired Vitamins Safe?
Expired vitamins are safe to take, but may not be as effective. At the expiration date, the product should still contain 100 percent of the added dietary supplement ingredients listed on the label, as long as it was stored under correct conditions.
After such date, those amounts can progressively decline. It’s no cause for concern over potential harm or side effects, but it does mean you may not get the specified dosage. You’re better off tossing them and grabbing a new package at the store.
There is one caveat to the above: if your expired vitamins have visible mold growth or a very strange odor, that’s a red flag. They may be risky to consume due to microbiological contamination. Stop taking them and dispose of them properly.
Expired Vitamins and Pregnancy
Pregnancy is one time when it’s particularly important to discard expired vitamins. Prenatal vitamins contain folic acid, which is essential for reducing the risk of neural tube defects in the developing fetus.
If you’re using expired prenatal vitamins, you risk not getting the correct amount of folic acid, so pick up a new bottle the next time you head to the store.
Factors Affecting Vitamin Expiration
How quickly a vitamin expires depends on several factors—some of which are related to manufacturing and others related to your own habits:
- Form of vitamin – Gummy vitamins and liquids tend to expire more quickly than tablets, capsules, and softgels.
- Container type – Some vitamins retain their potency longer in opaque containers versus those with a clear container, due to the effect of UV rays from sunlight.
- Container cap – Similarly, the type of cap—screw-on versus flip-top—may impact shelf life. If a flip-top cap does not create an appropriate seal when closed, your vitamins are exposed to more humidity which makes them break down more quickly.
- Storage – If you’ve got your vitamins stashed in a high humidity area like a bathroom medicine cabinet, they may deteriorate more quickly. Similarly, avoid placing them on a sunny window where they're exposed to a lot of light. A cool, dark cabinet is best for most products.
- Contamination – Reaching into the vitamin container every morning after getting the kids’ lunch ready? Contamination in the bottle with food residue or bacterial particles may impact shelf life.
Differences Between Individual Vitamins
The shelf life of your vitamins may also depend on the type of vitamin you’re taking. For example, some research has suggested the following individual vitamins may break down more quickly:
- Vitamin C – This vitamin is particularly susceptible to deliquescence, a process in which the vitamin starts to absorb some of the relative humidity in your air at home. As it absorbs the moisture, it loses potency. If the product isn’t packaged properly, or if you’re opening and closing it frequently in a humid environment, your vitamins will break down more quickly.
- Thiamin – One of the more unstable B vitamins, thiamin is also affected by moisture via deliquescence. Keeping it away from humid environments is best.
- Vitamin K – When combined in a multivitamin that also contains minerals, Vitamin K may degrade more quickly.
The shelf life of multivitamins is based on the specific vitamin that is quickest to lose its potency.
Expiration Policies by Company
Because it’s not required by the FDA, each company will make its own decision regarding if and how to label expiration dates on vitamins. At the time of publishing, these are policies of some of the most common supplement manufacturers:
- Centrum: All Centrum products are assigned an expiration date based on the least stable ingredient in the product. All ingredients should be present in the amount listed on the label until the last day of the month of expiration.
- NOW Foods: All NOW supplements have an expiration date printed on the package. If proper storage procedures are followed, products will retain full potency through this date.
- Swanson Vitamins: Products will either contain a best-by date or a manufacture date. If they contain a manufacture date, they recommend that most products are consumed within 2-3 years of such date. Liquids and probiotics should be consumed within 1 year.
- Nature Made: Vitamins and other dietary supplements include an expiration date and guarantees potency through such date. The way the date is set varies based on the type of product - there is not a specific time frame applied to all vitamin products.
- Priority One Nutritional Supplements: These do not currently contain expiration dates, as the company states they are working to authenticate expiration dates with stability testing. They currently recommend a two-year shelf life from the time of purchase, based on historical data.
Disposing of Expired Vitamins
Take some time to do an inventory of your vitamin stash. If you do discover any expired bottles, dispose of them properly.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends the following steps to dispose of expired vitamins or other supplements:
- Remove the pills from the original container.
- Place the vitamins in a disposable container or bag with coffee grinds, cat litter, or another undesirable substance. When they’re mixed with these, curious children or pets are less likely to find them in the trash.
- Close the container or seal the bag.
- Place the entire container/bag in the trash.
The EPA does not recommend flushing expired vitamins down the toilet. The substances may pass through wastewater treatment plants and end up in lakes, rivers, or other sources of drinking water.