When it comes to disposing of old vitamins, tossing them in the garbage with last week's Chipotle leftovers is an adulting fail. Here's how to properly get rid of expired vitamins and supplements safely — and why it matters.
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Put Waste in the Right Place
Sure, you're busy and barely have time to clear the number on your email app. So it's understandable that how to safely dispose of your old vitamins doesn't top your to-do list. But know this: Per Kaiser Permanente, you should avoid trashing them.
For one, digging through the trash is a thing — whether it be a random stranger or an innocent canine or toddler. So, by trashing your old vitamins and supplements, you risk them falling into the wrong hands, Kaiser Permanente says.
Villanova, Pennsylvania-based Lisa Diewald, RD, LDN, registered dietitian and nutritionist, and program manager of the MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education (COPE) at Villanova University, agrees. Even though this may be a greater risk with pharmaceuticals, it's a risk with vitamin and mineral supplements, as well, she says.
"Curious children or animals could find the supplements in your garbage and ingest them, causing severe illness or death," Diewald says.
And before you think of flushing them down the toilet instead, not so fast: Flushing poses its own potential problems. Think green: You should "never toss extra supplements into the trash or flush them down the toilet," Diewald says. When it comes to throwing them in the toilet, Diewald says, "vitamins and minerals can degrade and enter the water supply, which can cause contamination."
What to Do With Expired Vitamins
Before these epic consequences (safety! the planet!) give you anxiety overload, there are several easy ways to get rid of old vitamin and mineral supplements responsibly. The best option, says the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), is to take your unused supplements to an authorized permanent drug collection site or participate in a take-back event in your area.
And, in a pinch (though hard to imagine a vitamin throwaway emergency), the FDA also has information about which drugs are safe to flush down the toilet and which are not. But, says Kaiser Permanente, the safest approach is to not flush any drugs to avoid polluting any waterways.
Seal Supplements Safely
One caveat: Though not recommended for other medications, Diewald says you can throw away vitamin and mineral supplements if you do it properly.
"Both the EPA and FDA recommend mixing your leftover or expired supplements with coffee grounds or cat litter, and placing them in a container that can be sealed, such as an empty coffee can or yogurt cup," she says, and placing them in the trash.
The Power of Potency
So, is it even safe to take expired vitamins? According to Harvard Health Publishing, most of our know-how on drug expiration dates comes from a decades-old FDA study requested by the military. That study found that of 100-plus prescription and OTC drugs tested, 90% were perfectly potent as many as 15 years post-expiration.
The takeaway: The expiration date on your supplement doesn't necessarily signify the med has become useless or unsafe. Talk with your doctor or a pharmacist if you have any questions about your specific vitamins and supplements.
Also of note: The FDA doesn't require expiration dates for vitamins and supplements. So, per the FDA, if an expiration date is noted on the packaging, that manufacturer has to have data to back up why it has a date on it.
Buy Only What You Need
If you really want to avoid the drug disposal dilemma, the smartest strategy would be to avoid buying vitamins and minerals you don't need.
"When purchasing vitamin and mineral supplements, avoid impulse purchases, which can only increase the supply of unused supplements on your pantry shelves," Diewald says. "Choose only those you really need and intend to take, so that you can limit the number of pills, tablets and gummies for disposal," she says. And "store your supplements in a cool, dry place, so they stay fresh for as long as possible."
- Kaiser Permanente: “A Safer Way to Dispose of Unwanted Drugs”
- Lisa Diewald, MS, RD, LDN, dietitian, program manager, MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education, M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing, Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: “Drug Disposal: Drug Take Back Options”
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: “Disposal of Unused Medicines: What You Should Know”
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: “Dietary Supplement Labeling Guide: Chapter I. General Dietary Supplement Labeling”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Drug Expiration Dates — Do They Mean Anything?”