Our bodies operate using a variety of substances that we cannot make ourselves. These substances are called essential nutrients. Both vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients the body needs in order to function, but after sitting in a pill bottle for sometime they might begin to face some negative effects.
Do They Expire?
Vitamins don’t necessarily expire, but they do lose their potency over time.
This is because many of the organic nutrients that can be found in vitamins gradually break down overtime, reacting with other substances or just decaying.
Supplements are not required to have an expiration date printed on them, in the US, which can make it difficult to tell when you should stop consuming a particular vitamin - if it has lost its potency.
While some companies do still include a “use by” date, not all of them will. But if we assume that we are talking about a normal vitamin supplement with proper storage and packaging, they will likely last about two years in your cupboard.
The exact shelf life of the particular supplement that you plan on using is actually far more complicated than this general two year baseline. Shelf life depends on a variety of factors including what form it's in, what ingredients it has, and how it is stored. Let's look at a few of these in greater detail.
The form a vitamin is in is a crucial aspect in determining its shelf life. There are few main forms that you might find your supplements in: hard pills, chewable tablets, gummies, capsules. Chewable forms such as tablets and gummies tend to have a much shorter shelf life since they such up moisture far more easily than some of the other forms. This moisture aids in the degradation process, and it shows why packaging is an important component of vitamin efficacy.
Capsules are another important form to keep in mind. While the actual capsule form has a longer shelf life than some of the other forms, it also tends to be the loading form for supplements with living things, namely probiotics. Living things tend to die without nutrients, so forms that have living things are prone to a lower shelf life.
The specific ingredients that a supplement has can make all the difference for the longevity of the supplement. Ingredients that have the lowest shelf life are those that are living, such as probiotics. Probiotics are typically put in a supplement with some form of food to keep them alive until they reach your body, but when this food runs out then they die and will have little to no effect on your body.
Other supplement ingredients that are more organic, like enzymes or vitamins, also have lower shelf lives, since they are more likely to break down.
Ingredients like minerals can have some of the longest shelf lives of any ingredient, but can be completely ruined when exposed to the wrong environment. Also, some mineral additives of a supplement, specifically metals, can increase the degradation of the natural vitamins in the supplement while other additives, like amino acids, do not.
How a supplement is stored is an important factor in determining its life span as well. Temperature, moisture, sun exposure, and air exposure are the largest contributing factors when it comes to the environment's effects of pills.
Most pills come in a relatively air tight container, recommend that you keep them stored within a specific temperature range, and have opaque or tinted bottles to dampen the effect of UV radiation. Being cognizant of these environmental factors can help you pick a good storage space for your supplements.
There are good best practices for supplement storage to keep in mind for different supplements.
As mentioned, temperature is an important factor. Traditionally you might just think to keep them out of the heat, but some products are even unstable at room-temperature. Keep these supplements in a cooler location like a refrigerator can do wonders for extending their shelf life:
- Vitamin E
- Fish Oils
While light has some effects on temperature the light itself can have debilitating effects on vitamins D, B1, B2, B6, B12 and folate after prolonged exposure.
Keeping your vitamins stored in locations that are typically less humid is also a great way to battle moisture. Kitchens and bathrooms are popular places to keep supplements, but amongst the warmest and most humid rooms in the house.
Definitely consider a different room for vitamin storage, especially if this is where you plan to keep gummy or other chewable vitamins. Vitamin C is also prone to moisture induced oxidation.
If you find that your vitamins are old and you need to dispose of them there are a few different avenues you can take to ensure that you do not contribute to water contamination or some other unintended exposure:
- Mix the vitamins with coffee grounds or cat litter
- Put the vitamins in a sealed container
- Throw that container away
While this methodology might seem a little strange it is what the FDA recommends for the disposal of all unused medicines and it can help us protect our environment the best we can.
What Happens When I Take Old Vitamins?
Vitamins do not really expire, but they do lose their potency by breaking down. Sometimes taking these old supplements can have unintended consequences.
The broken down products of vitamins have to be processed by your body and therefore oxidative stress. Importantly, taking old supplements like probiotics and enzymes can make your stomach feel queasy or gassy. The FDA specifically states that you should stay away from any pills that are discolored, cloudy, or smell bad.
While the potential of being harmed by old vitamins is fairly miniscule, it is important to treat your body right and get your money’s worth by using vitamins at their highest potency.
This principle is part of the reason why we send you a new batch of our supplements every month. We want to ensure that you are receiving the highest quality supplements that you can be provided time and time again.
Keeping your body’s immune system in tip top shape is a great way to fight off any potential negative effects that you may face due to old vitamins or other stressors.
Our bodies need essential nutrients that it cannot make itself. Vitamins are some of these essential nutrients. While there is no regulation for putting an expiration date on vitamins, many of them can last about two years. How long they actually last depends on what form they are in, the ingredients that they have, and how they are stored.
Having good storage practices based on the specific vulnerabilities of each supplement can be a great way to ensure that you maximize their self life. If you do consume old vitamins then you are not likely to face any major negative symptoms, but boosting your body’s immune system definitely cannot hurt.
Meet our Experts
This article has been reviewed by members of our Scientific Advisory Board.
Dr. Jay Cowin, Nutrition Expert
Founder of Functional U, a Nutrition, Performance & Optimal Health practice.