You’ve finally decided to go all-in on your quest for a healthier you - you’ve done your research, clicked “buy now,” and you’re ready to start taking your new vitamins. Let’s say you take them for a few days before going on vacation, and you forget all about your newfound commitment to health when you get back home, only to find those vitamins at the back of your medicine cabinet months down the road. If we were talking about the old eggs in the back of the refrigerator, you’d obviously throw them away, but these are vitamins - do vitamins expire? As it turns out, the answer isn’t quite as simple as a traditional yes or no answer, and it’s influenced by a variety of different factors, some of which are up to the manufacturer and some of which depend on your habits.
By the Numbers:
- 77%: Percentage of American adults taking vitamins or supplements (1).
- 15: Number of daily essentials in each GEM nutrient dense bite
- 79%: Percentage of adult American women taking vitamins or supplements (1).
Do Vitamins Expire?
Most people know that medications do have an expiration date, after which point they’re generally less effective and should be thrown away. Vitamins are much the same way, so they don’t expire in the traditional sense of the word. Many vitamins have an expiration date on their label, but this date isn’t based on safety, it’s based on potency; vitamins generally just become less effective when used after their expiration date. That’s not to say that vitamins can’t go bad or become unsafe to consume, because if you see mold on your vitamin, you definitely shouldn’t take it, but in general, when we talk about the expiration date of vitamins, we’re speaking about the potency rather than safety.
With that said, figuring out the expiration date of some vitamins isn’t as simple as it seems. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require that manufacturers print expiration dates on dietary supplements, which includes vitamins and minerals. Some manufacturers choose to list expiration dates for their products, and they may use terms like “use by,” “best by,” or “expires on” when discussing the date. When manufacturers choose to list an expiration date for their product, the FDA requires that the company have “valid data demonstrating that it is not false or misleading,” which essentially means that the company must have research to prove that they can actually verify the potency of their product through the list date. For this reason, some companies choose not to print any date at all, which can make determining when to use the vitamins confusing. The expiration dates for vitamins generally depend on a number of different characteristics, some of which are within our control.
What Characteristics Impact the Expiration of Vitamins?
There are several different characteristics that impact how quickly a vitamin expires, and no two vitamins are exactly the same. Some characteristics are related to the manufacturing of the vitamins themselves, while others are influenced by your personal habits.
- Type of vitamin: One of the biggest determining factors in the expiration time for your vitamins is the type or form of vitamin you’re taking. Gummy vitamins and vitamins delivered in a liquid form tend to expire faster than vitamins that come in tablets, capsules, and softgels. Real food vitamins, like GEM, are best enjoyed within six months of production, which can be found printed on the container.
- Container: You may not give a second thought to the type of container your vitamin is stored in, but it can have a major impact on the expiration speed of the vitamin. Some vitamins last longer when kept in opaque containers as opposed to containers that are clear, because they are protected from sunlight and UV rays that can speed up expiration.
- Container cap: Even the cap of the container can impact the expiration of the vitamins. Flip top containers may not seal tightly enough to keep humidity at bay, which causes vitamins to expire more quickly. Screw-on caps are more likely to seal appropriately, which helps preserve the vitamins longer. GEM’s reusable tin jar and cap is airtight, helping your bites remain fresh.
- Storage: As we’ve already established, humidity and sunlight can have a major impact on the deterioration of vitamins, so storage is important. It’s best to avoid storing your vitamins in a high humidity area, such as a bathroom medicine cabinet or near a shower, and they also should not be placed in sunny areas where they will receive a lot of light. It’s best to look for a cool, dark place to keep your vitamins.
- Contamination: If you’re constantly reaching into the vitamin container with dirty hands after doing things like working with food or putting on cosmetics, you could be contaminating your vitamins without even knowing it. Introducing food residue or bacteria can impact the shelf life of your vitamins and cause them to deteriorate more quickly, sometimes even causing mold or bacteria to grow on your vitamins themselves.
Do Different Vitamins Expire at Different Rates?
While most people take a multivitamin, vitamins do have different expiration rates and some break down more quickly than others. For example, vitamin C is highly susceptible to rapid deterioration when it is exposed to moisture, even including the humidity in your house. Vitamin C absorbs moisture rapidly, which causes it to lose its potency, so opening and closing the container in a humid environment or not storing the vitamin properly can cause it to expire more quickly. Thiamin is also highly affected by humidity because it is one of the more unstable B vitamins, so like vitamin C, it should not be stored in humid environments like the bathroom. Vitamin K can degrade more quickly when combined with other minerals in the form of a multivitamin. Therefore, when these vitamins are included in a multivitamin, the expiration date will be based on the vitamin that is likely to lose its potency the fastest. Other components of the multivitamin may maintain their potency past the expiration date.
Is it Safe to Consume Expired Vitamins?
Generally speaking, it is safe to consume expired vitamins in the traditional sense, meaning they won’t make you sick or cause any potentially harmful side effects. However, they won’t be as effective after the expiration date, and you won’t receive the same health benefits you otherwise would. If you are relying on the vitamin to meet your nutritional goals for certain vitamins and minerals, you may begin receiving inadequate amounts after the vitamin expiration date. However, if your vitamins have a bad or different smell or show visible mold growth, they should not be taken regardless of the expiration date, as they may have been contaminated and could make you sick.
Can Pregnant Women Consume Expired Vitamins?
Pregnant women need to receive the appropriate amounts of vitamins and minerals in order to help the developing fetus grow properly, so they should not consume expired vitamins. It is particularly important for pregnant women to consume the right amount of folic acid, which reduces the risk of neural tube defects in the growing baby. Pregnant women should never consume expired vitamins due to the risk of not receiving the necessary nutrients for their baby.
How Should Vitamins be Stored?
Vitamins need to be kept away from humid areas and those with lots of sun, but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to find a good place to store them. Make sure to read the packaging on your specific vitamin for storage instructions, as some may require refrigeration while others do not. For example, real food vitamins like GEM are completely shelf stable, so you don’t need to keep it in your refrigerator. In general, it’s best to keep your vitamins in a cool, dry place to prevent degradation and limit the potential for biological contamination, like your nightstand or a kitchen cabinet. Remember to always wash your hands before reaching your hand into the vitamin container in order to limit the chance of transferring food residue or bacteria to your vitamins.
What Should I Do With Expired Vitamins?
Expired vitamins may not be dangerous to adults, but they can be harmful to children and pets, which is why it’s important to dispose of them properly. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends taking the following steps to dispose of expired vitamins or nutritional supplements:
- Take the vitamins out of the original container.
- Put the vitamins in a disposable container or bag with undesirable substances like coffee grounds, rotten vegetables, cat litter, or something else. This will keep kids and pets from reaching for them in the event they find them.
- Seal the bag or container properly to limit any smell produced by the vitamins that could attract animals.
- Place the container or bag in the trash.
Expired vitamins should not be flushed down the toilet or drain because the substances have the potential to end up in drinking water sources after passing through wastewater treatment plants, which can cause pollution.