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What does the expiry date really mean?

The food monitoring people require companies to have expiry dates on their products to protect us. It doesn’t always work. So what do those labels mean?

Food life

SELL BY: This is actually not for the consumers but lets the retailers know how long something could be on their shelves. It is a freshness date not a safety date. This date also takes into account how long you will most likely keep it on the shelf in your home.

BEST IF USED BY:  This is also a quality control date. It is still perfectly safe to use after the date but it may start to lose flavour or the consistency may change.

USE BY: This is a date that indicates the point of peak quality which will be reached on that date. Once again the product may used past this date but will not be as flavourful.

Even milk should be alright for about 5 days to a week after the expiry date. For some reason, Chalav Yisroel (Kosher supervised milk) milk seems to go off a lot earlier. Don’t waste the soured milk. If the pasteurized milk went sour in your fridge, and not from being in the sun, you can still use it, as long as it hasn’t started curdling! You can make a number of things from soured milk (unpasteurised only ).  Organic and/ or unpasteurised milk can be used when it has soured or even curdled. Use it instead of butter milk. I also know that a lot of us grew up with the smell of sour porridge, I know I did.

Eggs should have a shelf life of about 5 weeks after their expiry date especially if they are stored in the fridge.

Meat and poultry should not be used more than a day or two after their expiry dates, unless they have been properly frozen. Never re-freeze raw meat or fish once these have been defrosted, this can cause food poisoning, especially fish such as Yellowtail, Salmon, and Angelfish.

Fish must be used immediately.

Canned goods actually have a shelf life of up to 5 years. So maybe during my kitchen sorting, I own my kitchen, do you? I could have kept some of the things I threw out, although I figure if I haven’t used them yet it is unlikely I will use them anytime soon.


With looking at foods I also looked at medications. Over the past few years I noticed that the shelf life of all medicines and vitamins seems to have shortened considerably.

Taking expired medication can be harmful to your health, please confirm with your doctor or pharmacist before taking it.

There is a difference between the shelf life and the dispensed life. If a drug or medication is on the shelf sealed it often has an extra year past the expiry date. The expiry date is an estimate of how long the drug company is prepared to guarantee the drugs’ efficacy. Once a medication bottle has been opened that time is significantly shortened.

This only applies if the medication has been stored exactly as the manufacturer says it must. Dark, dry area, not your bathroom medicine cabinet.

There are, however, medications that may definitely not be used past the expiry date on the bottle as they have the potential to be toxic. This is the tetracycline group of drugs. Although the formulation of tetracycline has changed since this toxicity was discovered, I would still not take the risk.

The Epi-pen which is used when dealing with a life threatening allergic reaction, called anaphylaxis, also should not be used after expiry, simply because you would be using it in a life and death situation and you want the most potency out of it.

Insulin for diabetics should also not be used after expiry dates.

Ear drops and eye drops should be used within 30 days of opening the bottle. They can be used after if stored correctly and for the same condition. Once again please check with your doctor or pharmacist before doing so.

Rule of thumb

The general rule is if the medicine (and this applies to creams and ointments as well) is cloudy, has changed its smell or colour, it should not be used.

Drugs.com says the following: If an expired medication is for a minor health problem, for example, for a headache, hayfever, or mild pain, it may also be safe to take, although drug potency might not be 100 percent. Research has shown many military stockpiled medications retained 90 percent of their potency in their original stock bottle. However, storage conditions of these medications were optimized for temperature and humidity, and probably do not mimic the typical storage conditions of the average household prescription bottle.

As a personal choice of my husband (he’s a pharmacist) and myself (as a registered nurse), I have used many medications that are past their expiry date, especially blister pack medications as they are individually sealed. My medicines are also stored in a cool dark cupboard, not in my bathroom where humidity is often found after showers and baths.


For those who use make up, or know someone who uses make up, here are some important tips to know.

It is not my intention to be a scaremonger. For those who know me, you will know I am only paranoid about handwashing! I stopped sterilising bottles as soon as the kids were crawling! I let them all eat from the dogs bowl and one or two had a habit of sharing food with the dog.

Firstly, never share eye make -up of any kind! Also, make-up and face creams do have an expiry date or shelf life, but because it is not food, it does not need to be on the product, so take it from the date that you opened your makeup or cream.

Your eyeliner and your mascara go directly to your eyes, which are in your skull along with your brain. It doesn’t take much to spread germs this way. In fact, there has recently been an article in the paper about a woman who used someone else’s eye make-up and landed up paralysed.

I never used to wear make -up unless I was going to a function. I would put lipstick on when meeting my mom, who never appears in public unless she is perfectly groomed which she learned from her mother who always put on lipstick and did her hair before my grandfather, came home from work.  I used to have to be at work at 6:45 and I needed the 10 minutes extra sleep. This meant that some of the make up in my dressing table was over 5 years old.

Expiry dates for make-up:-

Blush- powder 2 years

Mascara 2-3 months

Eyeliner liquid 2-3 months

Eyeliner pencil 2 years if you keep them sharp.

Lip gloss 1 year

Anti-ageing creams maximum 1 year.

Loofahs and bath sponges 1-2 months

Some products have a picture of what looks like an open pot with a number and letter next to it. So it might have 6M, this would mean that once the jar is open it should be used within 6 months. Please excuse the photo quality, my camera and I are having a difference of opinion.


I hope that this has given you a better understanding of the different types of expiry dates which appear on nearly everything that you buy. How often do you go through your cosmetics drawer?

Have you cleaned out any cupboards recently and found expired stuff? Did you know that pharmacies have a special bin for expired medication?

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