THE BLOG
05/22/2013 04:18 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2013

The Expiration Date Conspiracy

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My middle son, Zack, was in need of a fainting couch. His cheeks were flushed and he had a sore throat. I knew his symptoms because he told me each one in great detail to make sure I understood, that I really, really understood, his condition. Zack is our resident chronicler of life's injustices. He is obligated to make sure that I don't miss anything that befalls or affronts him in his life. Like the time he got the last, not the first, piece of birthday cake, and the time his finger made a slight clicking sound when he bent it. A very, very slight sound that required the listener to listen very intently while he bent his finger five, six, seven times.

I shooed him off to the guest room (why should the rest of us get sick?) and told him to take whatever headache medicine was up there. [Please note: he was a tween, not a toddler.]

"I can't take this Advil," he yelled from his quarantined quarters.

"Why not?" I yelled back.

"Cause it's inspired!"

"I have no idea what that means!"

"It's inspired, the date on the bottle, it's inspired!"

"What does it say?"

"July, two years ago."

"It's this decade, take it!"

My husband, Scott, a reasonable and scientific man, was horrified.

"You just gave our child medicine that was past it's expiration date!"

[Please note: it's "our child" when I've done something wrong. It wasn't "our child" ten minutes before when Zack put his clammy, hot forehead on my bosom.]

"I gave him perfectly good medicine that shouldn't go to waste."

I confess: I am super-duper cheap. You think your Uncle Morty is cheap? Trust me, I can outcheap him. I regularly sit on the curb next to my car to use up every nickel I put in the parking meter. But, I wasn't just being cheap in this case: I was also taking a principled stance against the expiration conspiracy. Companies use expiration dates to make us buy more of their stuff. I decided to prove to my husband that inspiration dates don't mean anything on a bottle of pain reliever (and, I'll admit, to double check that I wasn't poisoning Zack).

I Googled ibuprofen and expired. Here's the first page that came up:

Question:

"I have considered adding a bottle or two of a few over the counter drugs like these to my emergency supplies, but I always notice they have expiration dates... Do they really expire, and become dangerous to take? Or just less potent?"

Answer:

"They may degreade [sic] 5-10% every year after the expire date, but are still safe."

The question was both asked and answered by Ruskie Gun Lover on Gunboards.com. I appreciate Ruskie's efficiency by just answering the question himself rather than waiting for someone else to reply. I do this all the time. For instance, I might ask myself: Why aren't I more popular? My answer: Because other people haven't yet discovered my amazing talents! Plus, I totally agreed with Ruskie's answer.

I suspected Scott would be unimpressed with Ruskie Gun Lover. So, I went to WebMD. Here is how Heather Free of the American Pharmacists Association answered the question as to whether Advil expiration dates matter:

"We wouldn't drink milk that is 2 weeks past its expiration, so why would you want to take Advil 2 weeks past the expiration?... This is not a gray situation. It is black and white. Either the medication is safe to take or not. If the medication has expired, please do not ingest it."

Heather, I wouldn't drink milk two weeks past the expiration date because it would be in chunks and smell like the unhollowed Easter egg my little sister left in her closet for three months in 1973. I don't need a date on the carton to tell me that milk has expired; that's why I have eyes and a nose.

Expiration dates are on bottles of pills to make us buy more pills -- from Heather's pharmacy!

Here's how the expiration conspiracy works in practice. I buy a bottle of Advil with one hundred pills in it that has an expiration date of twelve months from purchase. In order to use the whole bottle, I would have to take two Advils a week, but that's assuming that I only take Advil for my theoretical weekly headache. I also have a bunch of different pain relievers in my medicine cabinet. I've got Aleve, Tylenol and a heavy-duty narcotic from three years ago when Scott dislocated his shoulder (honestly, I don't know the difference between all of these different medicines, can't we just go back to aspirin?) Plus, I'm just as likely to get a headache at a meeting downtown or on a trip as at home, so I have bottles in my purses and computer bags, my suitcase, and my toiletry bag. Basically, I have a whole fricken mess of pain relief pills everywhere. I have three criteria for deciding which of these many medicines to take. I take the one that is closest, has the easiest top to open, and has the smallest, slipperiest pills to swallow.

And now, back to my first bottle of Advil. With all of variables listed above, maybe I will use twenty pills from that one bottle in a year. That leaves eighty "expired" pills. I am more likely to voluntarily cut off my right arm than I am to voluntarily throw out a bottle of eighty pills that were manufactured in the last few years.

I finally did what I should have done in the first place and called my ultimate source of medical information, my best friend, Dr. Felise Milan. Having a best friend who is an internist is like falling in love with someone and then finding out that they are really, really rich. Does ibuprofen expire? I asked. It doesn't go bad, she said, it just loses its potency over time. That's all I needed to know. I yelled up to Zack to take three Advil. This was not only the way to make up for the loss of pill potency, but also the only way we are ever going to finish that darn bottle of pills!