Medicine Cabinet Antiquity Challenge

Medicine Cabinet“Mrs. Smith, these frozen chicken breasts are from 2006. That’s pretty old.
 Do you want us to throw them out?”

“No, I sauté them with a little butter, salt, and pepper and they taste just fine.”

“But they must be bad for you.”

“I’m 92, they can’t be that bad.”

I think about this conversation each time I explore our chest freezer and find items that resemble fossils. For most of us, it’s not just our freezers that have expired items, our pantries do too. So do our refrigerators, bathrooms, and medicine cabinets.  For example, I recently found a jar of Harry and David Apple and Vidalia Onion relish. I remember tasting it in the store. It was delicious. Of course, the expiration date on the jar says 2007. While I am somewhat adventurous, that is too old even for me.

Most spices have a shelf life of up to 5 years. Some containers are marked with expiration dates, and most spice companies have guidelines on their websites as to how long the spice is good. Remember the little tin cans from McCormicks? If you have any, throw them out. With the exception of black pepper, McCormicks hasn’t made spices in tin cans since the 1990s. So what’s the harm of using expired spices? They probably won’t make you sick, but they won’t have much flavor either, or the flavor may have changed, so adding more may actually ruin your food. Some people believe that putting spices in your garden protect flowers from bugs and deer, so if putting them in the trash doesn’t sit well with you, you can always use them as a gardening aid.

I learned the perils of expired cosmetics the hard way. I was attending a wedding and decided to wear makeup, which I don’t often do. I guess “often” is not the right word, since years can go by between my makeup applications. At any rate, I applied the makeup, thought I looked pretty good, and then my eyes began killing me. “Wow, I really must be getting dry eye,” I thought, and made an appointment with my ophthalmologist. I explained what happened. “Your eyes are fine,” she said.

“How old are the cosmetics?” Hummm. I wore eye makeup daily in my prior career before starting Moving Solutions, and I left in 1994…of course, the makeup wasn’t necessarily new when I left…so, say 15-18 years old, I told the doctor. “You can’t wear 15 year old cosmetics,” she said. “They develop bacteria.” Well, duh…I guess I should have known that. I went online and most sites recommend that once you open that blush, bronzer, concealer, eye shadow, eyeliner, foundation, lip liner, lipstick, mascara, or other cosmetics product, you should only keep it for about three months. Even when products don’t become harmful, they can change smell, color, and texture.  So into the trash went my decade-old cosmetics. I have a much smaller, new supply now, which I still wear infrequently.

Continuing on my expiration mission, I went to our medicine cabinet. Out went the Pepto Bismol, the bottom of which had solidified. Out went 6 bottles of nose spray, most more than 3 years old, and dozens of unidentifiable cold pills that had been removed from their packages. These were joined by jars of left over antibiotics (with 2 or 3 capsules left because I had started to feel better). I assembled our collection of antibiotic ointments, and got rid of any that were more than 2 years old. I found 9 containers of sun block, most over 3 years old, and added them to the trash. I discovered 5 large unopened boxes of Q-tips. I expect that these have a long shelf-life, so we probably have a lifetime supply. Out went 3 jars of decade-old Vaseline, 11 partially used chapsticks, a dozen nail polishes (most solidified), 4 ancient body lotions, 3 huge extra firm hold hair sprays (do I even remember using hair spray?), 4 huge round hairbrushes (way too large for the short hair I’ve had short for over a decade), two curling irons, perfumes  (definitely can’t remember the last time I wore perfume), 4 tubes of muscle rub (now there is something I do use regularly) that were completely used up, and a heating pad whose cover had a disgusting growth on it. I found three hair dryers—good thing—I was thinking I needed to buy a new one, 9 unopened dental flosses (do they expire too??) and 6 brand new toothbrushes, so I parted with my old one (wonder how long I have been using that), so now there are just 5 new ones.

The ironic thing is, I would not have guessed that we had that much. It occupied a relatively small space; I am not even sure how it all fit. But my new medicine cabinet is a thing of beauty. Everything is organized in small white plastic baskets and three tiered shelves so there is clear visibility, and I know where everything is. When my husband asked where we now keep antibiotic ointment, I proudly told him, “in the white basket, third shelf down, in a small box holding 4 tubes of ointments.” He was impressed, and so was I. Being uncluttered, being in control, feels good.

So perhaps you are saying to yourself, “No way do I have that much stuff hanging around in my pantry or medicine closet.” Go ahead, empty your pantry and medicine cabinets and see. I challenge you.

This post originally appeared on Moving Solutions‘ blog on June 26, 2012, by Margit Novack.

Reprinted with permission. Margit Novack is the president of Moving Solutions, a Senior Move Management company serving the Philadelphia area. She is the founding president of the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM), and she chairs NASMM’s Ethics Review Committee.