Image Source: Chaunté Vaughn
You might be able to test the limits on skincare products or that pasta sitting in your pantry, but birth control pills are one thing you don't want to use past their expiration date. Like most medications, expired birth control is likely to be less effective overall. That means taking birth control that's past its expiration date can put you at increased risk of pregnancy and make the pill less effective at managing pesky symptoms like painful cramps — two things you probably don't want to gamble on. (Side note: condoms expire, too.)
For some of us, it might be surprising to hear that birth control pills can even expire in the first place. It's not like you'll be able to see (or smell or taste) it when birth control pills have passed their expiration date, as you would with food, for example. But unlike with food or even expired beauty products, it's not a question of whether expired birth control pills will make you feel poorly or have other adverse side effects. You may feel totally fine, but your birth control won't be as effective as it should be.
So how do you know when your birth control is expired? And what should you do if you realize it is past its expiration date? Here's what an expert had to say.
How Do You Know If Birth Control Is Expired?
Luckily, it's easy. Check the expiration date printed on your birth control pack. It should be printed on the package — likely either the printed label or the back of the blister pack, according to Nurx, a telemedicine company that offers birth control. Generally, only the month and year are listed; you should consider the pills expired on the first of that month.
When Does Birth Control Expire?
"Because of the hormones within birth control pills, most expire within one year from their manufacturing date," says Charlsie Celestine, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn in New Jersey and host of the podcast "For Vaginas Only". Depending on when you pick up your prescription, your pills may actually expire less than a year after you bring them home. This is because the expiration date printed on your birth control pack is dated exactly one year from the time it was manufactured, not the date it was prescribed or purchased.
How you store your pills is also important when it comes to birth control effectiveness. "Keeping birth control pills in an environment that is too hot, too cold, or with high humidity can make your pills lose their effectiveness even prior to their expiration date," Dr. Celestine warned. This can easily be avoided by storing them in an indoor, temperature-controlled environment (think: inside your nightstand, not a steamy bathroom or the center console of your car).
Does Expired Birth Control Work?
Once your birth control pills pass their expiration date, manufacturers can no longer guarantee that they're still effective. While previous studies (not focused on birth control) have found that medication generally does remain effective past its expiration date, the difference with birth control is even a small dip in potency might stop your pills from suppressing ovulation (which is one of the ways birth control pills prevent pregnancy). It's a risk that doctors typically don't recommend taking.
While taking expired birth control can make it less effective at preventing pregnancy, it can also have consequences if you use the pill to help regulate your cycle or find relief from period side effects or hormonal issues like migraine headaches, heavy bleeding, or severe cramps. "It's very important to abide by the expiration dates, as the hormones in the pill that help regulate your period are at a risk of deteriorating, which may affect how they help your cycle," Dr. Celestine says.
If you realize your birth control has expired and are urgently in need of another pack of pills, get in touch with your doctor to refill your prescription. If you can't reach your doctor or get an appointment in time, some states allow you to get your prescription refilled by a pharmacist, Dr. Celestine says. Whatever route you take to get your prescription, remember to use a backup form of contraception, like condoms, to ensure you're protected in the meantime.
— Additional reporting by Maggie Ryan