Understanding Expiration Dates - Me In Order

There are many things to pay attention to on the products that we buy, from ingredients to product claims and warnings, but we want to talk about one that can be even harder to understand, the “expiration” date. Like any other information on the products we buy, it can get confusing. So with a little help from the USDA, let’s figure it out!

First, what is dating? Products are dated to help the store determine how long products can stay on their shelves. The date is not intended to be used for safety purposes. This means that the date listed on the product is not actually an “expiration” date and food products can be consumed after the date listed. Here is more detail about the types of dates:

  • Sell-By:  Listed for the store to determine how long they can display the product. Consumers should only buy products that have not passed their “sell-by” date.
  • Best if Used by (or Before) or Use by: This is the recommended date for best flavor or quality. The product can be consumed after this date but may not have as strong of a flavor. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
    *If you are looking at a use-by date on baby food or formula, DO NOT buy or use items that are past that date.
  • Closed or coded dates: These are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer. These are the printed numbers you find on items that are specifically labeled with months and days.

Here are details on specific foods when it comes to dates:

  • Eggs: Always purchase eggs before their “sell-by” or expiration date and use within three to five weeks of bringing them home and store them in your refrigerator.
  • Canned Goods: These items usually list a closed code that is used for the manufacturer. “Canned foods are safe indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to freezing temperatures, or temperatures above 90 °F (32.2° C). If the cans look ok, they are safe to use. Discard cans that are dented, rusted, or swollen. High-acid canned foods (tomatoes, fruits) will keep their best quality for 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods (meats, vegetables) for 2 to 5 years. (USDA)”
  • Beauty Products: The items we put on our skin are just as important as the items we put in our body. Most items have a “best by” date that you can follow but if it is stored properly these items can last longer.
    *PAO = Period After Opening: most skincare and makeup products have a date on their products that tells you how long the product will be good for after opening it. It will be labeled with a number followed “M” for months, 12M = 12 month. Write the date you open the product on it with a sharpie so you know when it is time to go (paulaschoice.com).         

One reason we like to look at expiration dates is it makes for easy decision making. Clearing out the clutter in our home can be stressful and require a lot of thought, but just looking at expiration dates might not be the key.

Here are some other tips we use when looking to see if items are too old:

  • Separation– food and beauty products have a tendency to separate over time which is easy to see in most containers, chances are if they have already separated it is time for them to go.
  • Discoloring- this is also true for both food and beauty products, if the color of the item in question has faded or just completely changed color it’s time for it to be tossed.
  • Change in smell/smelly– certain items will change more dramatically
  • Last use– After looking at the past date on the product, especially if it has been opened, think about the last time you used it. This is even more important on beauty products because they are in direct contact with your skin and can cause harm. If you don’t remember the last time you used it, you probably don’t need it.

For more information and a chart on how long items can stay in the fridge, visit the USDA guidelines.


By Meredith Sopko

Meredith is a marketing professional and Expert Organizer with expertise in social media and e-communications. When she’s not organizing or on social media, she is at the beach or watching reality TV and drinking wine.