Warning: Please do not attempt this at home…unless you are a little adventurous like me.

It’s the hot and sweaty summer of 2005, and I have just taken that leap from academia-for-life to the throes of the real world. I had managed to get a morning routine down after the first several weeks at my first intimidating job: wake up at 7:00, write for half an hour, brush hair, put on clothes, eat some breakfast, and then smear on a little deodorant before heading out the door. This wasn’t just any deodorant. It was 7 extra-large bars of Dove deodorant (a brand that was too expensive before, but that now I was able to afford) purchased at my first-ever Costco trip for $7.12.

Fast forward to this morning, and I feel like I’ve entered a parallel universe. I am starting my day again, writing for half an hour, brushing my hair, putting on clothes, eating a little breakfast, then gliding on the last of these 7 bars of deodorants as I head out the door. Except now it is 2009, nearly four years since I made the purchase. I look along the creamy-colored torso of this deodorant, and see an expiration date of June 2007. That would have been right in the throes of my second job out of college and a relationship gone awry. I could not have possibly given up these bars that summer, and why would I? Even today they still work just fine. They’ve gotten me through quite a few sweat-provoking situations (I am starting to feel like this could be an ad for the deodorant itself): three new jobs, two lay-offs, two interstate moves, countless client meetings, relationships ending, and yoga.

This post may contain affiliate links - it's how we keep the lights on around here. Here's our policy.

I have often wondered whether or not manufacturers have a stake in expiration dates. After all, if they can convince their consumers to throw away half-used, expired mayonnaise and go buy another bottle, then that puts more money into their pockets. But where do you draw the line between wastefully throwing away good product, and taking heed to dates for your health’s sake?

I think I can answer this question first by stating what the experts think, and then by telling you what I think.

Three main labels exist to help consumers discern whether or not to use a product:

  • Sell by: Don't buy the product after this date.
  • Best if used by: Flavor or quality is best by this date but the product is still edible thereafter.
  • Use by: This is the last day that the manufacturer vouches for the product's quality.

Also, here is a listing of common products by Real Simple magazine and manufacturers showing the length of time they are still safe and effective. Medications seem to be a category by itself, with the general consensus among the pharmaceutical industry that drugs need expiration dates because their chemical makeup expires after a certain amount of time. Still, this is a controversial topic with many people believing that expiration dates are necessary, but premature on many prescription medications to the favor of pharmaceutical companies.

As for me, I feel that it is all about comfort level. I like to look, sniff, and possibly taste products beyond their expiration dates (barring chicken, eggs, dairy, and bulging cans, ofcourse), to see if they have any life left in them. Can the product still fulfill its function? I have taken ibuprofen well past its expiration date, mainly because I rarely need it, so I usually end up with a large bottle with enough product to last me for ten years. It still relieves my aches and pains. If I were to wake up tomorrow, put on my antiperspirant, and find out that it didn’t keep me from perspiring throughout the day, then that is an indication to me that it needs to be chucked.

Where do you draw the line?

Update: I recently ate a yogurt for lunch leftover from groceries a few weeks back. I knew the sell-by date had passed, but began to eat it anyway, figuring it was good probably for two weeks or so after that date. As I scooped the last bit of yogurt from the bottom of the container into my mouth, something on the label caught my eye. “Good for 7 days past sell-by date”. I swallowed what was in my mouth, and turned to the bottom of the container. Sell-by date: July 26th. What is today? August 11th. Whoops. Now I can proudly attest to the fact that yogurt may, infact, stay good beyond 7 days past its sell-by date (though if I were you, I would still give it a good smell first).