Gearing up for spring cleaning? Don’t forget to add your medicine cabinets to the list. The American College of Emergency Physicians recommends an annual purge of medications past their prime. While you’re at it, find out if you’re making these common medication storage mistakes, and which types of medicines don’t hold up well when stored in a medicine cabinet.

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What to ditch

  • Expired products. This includes prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, sunscreens, lotions — basically, anything with a use-by date. “The expiration date is a guarantee from the manufacturer of the product’s safety and potency,” says Carolyn Ha, PharmD, senior director of professional affairs at the National Community Pharmacists Association. “Beyond that date, it is generally recommended that it not be used.”

Other experts say there is some leeway with OTC medications that have expired. In many cases, they don’t go bad, they just become less potent. For instance, says Steven Hangge, RPh, a NJ-licensed pharmacist for 25 years, taking an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen that is a month or so past its expiration date is not necessarily harmful, but the pill may not be as effective as a fresh tablet. This probably isn’t a big deal if you’re battling a headache. But using expired meds for other conditions could be dangerous.

“Fast-acting medications that have expired, like an inhaler for asthma, can potentially be harmful because chances are the patient is not getting the full effectiveness,” says Hangge.

The same holds true for expired sunscreens. “The active ingredient that blocks the sun may not be as potent, and you could end up with a burn when you thought you were protected,” says Hangge.

  • Meds or other items that show spoilage. Whether or not they’ve expired, vitamins or medications that show signs of spoilage — crumbling, melting or a change in pill or liquid color or texture, for example — should be tossed. 

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  • Unused items. Remember that lip balm you bought, used once and didn’t like? Medicine cabinet space is limited. If you don’t use it, toss it.
  • Old products. For items that don’t come with an expiration date, such as adhesive bandages, or thermometers, follow this rule: If it looks old, is old, or smells funky, the quality of the product has diminished, which means it’s time to throw it out.
  • Recalled items. Recalls of pharmaceutical products have surged in recent years, with 1,225 total recalls in 2013, compared to 499 the previous year. “I receive recall notifications every day for medications and products,” says Hangge. For the most part, these recalls are considered “non-dangerous,” he says, and are due to packaging problems or stability issues. These can affect the medication’s physical, chemical or therapeutic properties. As a result, the drug may not be as effective as intended.

When a drug recall does pose a danger (such as the discovery of a serious side effect or possible harmful contamination) “we call every patient who has been prescribed that drug to inform them of the recall,” says Hangge. Adds Ha, if consumers think they’ve heard about a recall for a medication they take, they should call their pharmacist or check the government recall site. Or you can search SafeBee’s product recalls database.

Once you’ve gathered up all the items you’re ready to toss, don’t just dump them into a trash bag. You need to consider the safety of kids, pets and the environment, says Ha. Certain medications can be flushed, while others should be mixed with coffee grounds or some other substance before putting them in the trash. If you have a thermometer that contains mercury, call your local hazardous waste facility for disposal requirements.

Meds to move out of the medicine cabinet

This may come as a surprise, but it turns out the medicine cabinet is probably not the best place to store medications. “Most medications should be kept in a cool, dry, dark place, away from heat and humidity,” Ha says. Exposure to heat, air, light and moisture can cause some drugs to lose their potency. “Consider storing prescription and over-the-counter medications in a linen closet away from the bathroom, but still out of sight from young children,” she suggests.

Ha also recommends keeping medications that require fast and easy access — inhalers or insulin and epinephrine pens — in several locations throughout the home.

Don’t store these items in a bathroom with a shower or tub in regular use, says Ha:

  • Pain relievers
  • Fever reducers
  • Allergy medications
  • Cold and cough medications
  • Laxatives
  • Antacids
  • Hydrocortisone cream
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Isopropyl alcohol

Store these items in a medicine cabinet (now that you have all that extra space)

  • Bandages
  • Gauze
  • Cotton balls
  • Medical tape
  • Thermometer
  • Tweezers
  • Eyeglass repair kit
  • Pill cutter
  • Nail clipper
  • Razors
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush
  • Dental floss
  • Nasal aspirator bulb

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Diana St. Lifer is a certified professional life coach and freelance writer.