Why 2 Experts Say You Should Clean Your Medicine Cabinet — and Their 5 Key Tips

Cleaning out your medicine cabinet isn't just a matter of organization or getting your bathroom up to KonMari standards. Keeping track of your medications and expiration dates, as well as how and where you store them, actually has a lot to do with safety — and not just yours, but that of the people around you, too. But where to start? POPSUGAR talked to Sean Mackey, MD, professor and chief of the pain medicine division at Stanford, and clinical pharmacist Ann Schwemm, Pharm D, MPH, to clear up misconceptions and get the facts on how to read medication expiration dates, throw out old pills, and keep your medicine cabinet organized and safe.

How Should You Store Medication?
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How Should You Store Medication?

When you're deciding where to store medication, Schwemm said, "You want to avoid environments that have big swings in humidity." Ironically, the room in your house with the most changes in humidity? Your bathroom. You should be fine, as long as it's equipped with vents and good air flow, although she advises keeping your medication containers sealed tightly.

If you want to avoid the risk, though, Schwemm recommended storing medications in places like your dining room or a linen closet near the bathroom; areas that are almost as convenient but will keep your medications safe.

You'll also want to avoid temperatures over 104 degrees. Typically not a problem if your medication is just sitting in your house, but Schwemm cautioned to take care when you're traveling — put your pills in a cooler if possible. You shouldn't leave them in your car in the summer, either. "Cars can easily get to over 100 degrees in the summer, which can negatively impact the integrity of the medication," she said.

What Do Medication Expiration Dates Mean?
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What Do Medication Expiration Dates Mean?

Whether it's over-the-counter cold medicine or a prescription drug, expiration dates on medications generally indicate when the med will start losing its potency or effectiveness. In general, Dr. Mackey said, the expiration dates printed on your medication are pretty conservative measurements. "Many maintain good potency after their expiration dates," he said, so some drugs and medications might still work well for a few years after that printed date.

Still, in most cases, it's better safe than sorry. This is especially true, Schwemm said, when it comes to prescription drugs. The older the drug is — the closer to, or farther past, its expiration date — the more it starts degrading, and the less actual drug product there is. "If it's medication where you really need the effect, where you really need it to work — whether it's birth control or blood pressure medication — I would want that to work 100 percent," she explained.

Plus, studies don't look at what happens to the drug when it breaks down, post-expiration date. "The likelihood that it's turning into something negative is very low," Schwemm said, "but researchers also aren't testing for it, so we don't really know what the drug has potentially degraded into."

They both advised doing extra research into your specific medication. It's free to consult a pharmacist, Schwemm reminded us, and you can also check in with a doctor. "My recommendation would be, where possible, always just get your doctor to write you a current prescription and get it filled," Dr. Mackey told POPSUGAR.

How Do You Throw Away Medications and Prescription Drugs?
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How Do You Throw Away Medications and Prescription Drugs?

When you are ready to get rid of medication, it's not as simple as just tossing the bottle into the trash. There are some tricky rules for throwing out medications, so here are the best ways to do it, starting with our experts' number one recommendation.

  1. Go to a take-back facility or drop-off box. The best way to get rid of drugs, Schwemm and Dr. Mackey agreed, is to take them to a medical take-back site, where professionals will dispose of them safely with no questions asked. You can find take-back sites near you through the Drug Enforcement Administration's website or through your county's website. Your pharmacy can also provide envelopes to mail in your medications instead.
  2. Mix the medication with something unpalatable and toss it out. The second-best option for most drugs is to "mix it and pitch it," Schwemm said: take the medication out of the container and mix it in a plastic or Ziploc bag with an inedible substance like dirt, coffee grounds, or kitty litter. Zip it up or tie it up, double-bag it if you can, and throw it in the garbage.
  3. Flush opioids, if you can't take them to a facility. If you're getting rid of an opioid, like Vicodin, OxyContin, or Percocet, both experts agreed that it's better to flush them down the toilet than throw them away. Delivering them to a take-back facility is preferred, but if that's not an option, "flushing is the best choice for public safety," Schwemm said. Dr. Mackey noted the environmental concerns over this option, but said, "The feeling was, based on the current opioid crisis, that the benefits of flushing overcome the potential environmental risks. I'm very concerned with the environment, personally," he added, "and I would have to agree with those recommendations. It is better to flush them and get them out of the house and reduce potential exposure."
How Should You Throw Out Creams, Gels, and Needles?
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How Should You Throw Out Creams, Gels, and Needles?

Take-back facilities and take-back boxes will accept medications in gel and cream form as well. If you're doing the "mix it and pitch it" option, Schwemm said to follow the same basic steps: remove your name and information from the label and either drop the tube in a plastic bag, or squeeze the medication out into the bag.

Needles are a little trickier. If you take a medication that comes with a needle for self-injection, you'll need to put them in a sharps container, which Schwemm says you can get at a pharmacy or local lab. If you don't have a sharps container, you can also set a needle in an orange juice jug or liquid laundry detergent bottle before bringing them to a take-back facility.

How Do You Throw Away a Prescription Bottle?
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How Do You Throw Away a Prescription Bottle?

Before you toss the empty tube or pill bottle in the trash, both Schwemm and Dr. Mackey recommended blocking out any identifying information, like your name, address, or contact information, for the sake or personal safety. You can also tear the label off and send it through a shredder, or, Schwemm said, carefully take a match or a lighter to the label, which will blacken out the information.