Portrait of Nathaniel Scharping
Author
Nate Scharping
Portrait of Eric Betz
Reviewer
Eric Betz

Does Expired Work?

What’s in an expiration date? If you’re the kind of person who takes a risk on milk from the back of the fridge, you might be more inclined to see them as expiration suggestions (you do you!). Even if you’re not, it can be tough to know what an expiration date really means. After all, it’s not like milk turns into cottage cheese as soon as it hits its expiration date.

Medications, including pills, have expiration dates too. Studies of many expired medications indicate they probably work, but their effectiveness decreases over time. Unfortunately, actual studies of expired don’t exist, and the consequences of less effective could definitely matter. After all, there’s a big difference between your headache cure not working and your not working.

Do birth control pills expire?

Yes, birth control pills do expire, though studies of expired are surprisingly scant. Look for an expiration date on your pill pack — it should be at least twelve months from the manufacture date.

Though there are no studies of expired , studies of other expired drugs indicate that the active ingredients they contain will break down over time, meaning there’s less and less of them. This happens slowly, so within the time before expiration, your is fine. But after that, there’s no guarantee they’ll work. All things considered, we don’t recommend taking birth control pills that are past their expiration date.

Are expired birth control pills dangerous?

There’s no evidence that taking expired will harm you, outside of increasing your risk of becoming pregnant. The hormones in the pills just break down over time, and there’s nothing harmful inside of old .

But scientific evidence on expired is shockingly lacking (as in, we couldn’t find any whatsoever). Since there aren’t any studies on expired , we can’t actually tell you exactly what happens to it. But we do know that the expiration date set by the manufacturers is the date until which they’ll guarantee that their product is effective.1

While data on expired is scant, there have been a number of studies on expired medications in general. Most of the research indicates that medications are still effective even after their expiration dates have passed, and even long after, in some cases.

Data on expired is scant

One study tested a few different kinds of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including ibuprofen. All of them had acceptable ranges of their active ingredients up to two years past their expiration dates.2

Another study looked at eight different medications, including aspirin, acetaminophen, codeine, and an amphetamine. After testing samples of each that ranged from 28 to 40 years past their expiration dates, the researchers found that 12 of the 14 active ingredients the medications included were still present in concentrations of 90% or above.3

So, there’s evidence to suggest that many medications are good past their expiration dates. But it’s really important to note that these studies didn’t include . There’s little publicly-available information on how quickly the sex hormones inside birth control pills break down. That means we can’t offer good recommendations either in favor or against birth control pills being good past their expiration dates.

Why is that? It’s tough to say, but we can offer some informed speculation based on longstanding trends in the pharmaceutical industry.

For example, pharmaceutical companies tend not to spend a lot of money doing research on in general.

Most of these companies spend about 20% of their revenue on research and development.4 But in recent years, the companies making spent just 2% of the revenue from them on R&D, according to the authors of an op-ed published in the scientific journal Nature in 2020.5 In the context of a clear lack of emphasis for research into , figuring out exactly how long their is good for might just seem like an unnecessary expense.

There’s another more basic potential conflict of interest at play here as well: the earlier birth control pills expire, the more likely it is people will need to buy more of them, increasing revenue.

Do other kinds of expire?

Aside from birth control pills, we do know a critical expiration date to watch out for is the one on condoms.6 The materials condoms are made of, whether latex, polyurethane, or even lambskin, break down over time. That means an old condom could outright break during use, or develop microscopic holes that let sperm through. If a condom is past its expiration date, throw it out!

Person pulling condom out of package with expiration date

Other kinds of also need to be replaced at regular intervals, including s (IUDs), contraceptive implants, the ring, and the patch. Replacement times differ for each method, so be sure to pay attention to the specific instructions for each one. For example, the implant needs to be replaced every three years, while some types of the ring need to be swapped out every month.

What should I do if my is expired?

If your birth control pills are expired, you should get rid of them and start a new, unexpired pack. If that means there will be a short gap in your hormonal , make sure to use another method like a condom until you’ve been taking the pill again for seven days.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends you seal medications you’re tossing in a container like a plastic bag before throwing them away. And to protect your personal information, cross out or remove your info on the pack before throwing it out to be extra safe.7

We may have better information on how long truly lasts someday. It’s a question that’s more than possible to test, and the answer could help people around the world wondering if their is good or not. But for now, stay on the safe side. If your is past its expiration date, don’t use it.

References

  1. FDA. “Expiration Dates – Questions and Answers.” FDA.gov (2021 Dec 30): Last accessed 2022 Jun 07.
  2. Sharma, Sushil, et al. “A study to investigate the chemical potency, physical stability, and efficacy of analgesic agents over a period of two years post their expiry date.” Medical Journal Armed Forces India (2021).
  3. Cantrell, Lee, et al. “Stability of active ingredients in long-expired prescription medications.” Archives of Internal Medicine 172.21 (2012): 1685-1687.
  4. Evaluate. “World Preview 2019, Outlook to 2024.” EvaluatePharma (2019 Jun).
  5. Chamberlain, Sarah G., et al. “Reboot contraceptives research—it has been stuck for decades.” Nature (2020): 543-545.
  6. FDA. “Labeling for Natural Rubber Latex Condoms Classified Under 21 CFR 884.5300 – Class II Special Controls Guidance for Industry and FDA StaffFDA.gov (2021 Nov 12): Last accessed 2022 Jun 07.
  7. FDA. “Disposal of Unused Medicines: What You Should Know.” FDA.gov (2021 Oct 01): Last accessed 2022 Jun 07.