How to store medicines and supplements

Did you know that the bathroom is a terrible place to store your medicines and supplements? So much for medicine cabinets! Heat and moisture in the bathroom can quickly deteriorate medicines (prescription or over-the-counter), vitamins, and other supplements. Light and air are also damaging! 

So where is the best place to store medicines and supplements?

The best place to store medicines and supplements is in a cool, dry, dark place. A dresser drawer or storage box in a closet should work well. So would a kitchen cupboard — as long as it’s away from the stove or other warm appliances (like the top of the refrigerator) or the sink. When choosing a box, opt for something that will keep the light out (not a clear storage box, for example).

pills of various shapes and colors stored in a clear plastic medication storage container

Taking care to store your medicines correctly will ensure that they remain effective until the expiration date. 

What happens to medicines and supplements that aren’t stored correctly?

According to the National Institutes of Health, medicines can become less potent or go bad (and make you sick) before the expiration date if they are not stored properly. Capsules and pills, especially, are easily damaged by heat and moisture. Aspirin can break down into vinegar and salicylic acid, for example, which can irritate your stomach.

Other storage tips

In addition to storing your medicines and supplements in a cool, dry, dark, place:

  • Keep medicines and supplements in their original containers so you can easily identify them and their expiration dates.
  • Remove the cotton ball from your medicine bottle, because cotton pulls moisture into the bottle you’ve opened it. 
  • When you pick up a prescription, talk with the pharmacist about storage instructions. Some medication needs to be refrigerated.
  • Of course, you’ll also want to make sure all medicines are stored safely out of children’s reach. For many of us, it’s best to store them inside a high cabinet with a child safety latch. Keep in mind that children often mistake medicines and vitamins for candy.

How can I tell if medicine has gone bad?

Discard any medicine or supplements that are:

  • A different smell or color than originally
  • Soft and sticky (they may be sticking together)
  • Harder than normal
  • Chipped or cracked
white speckled medication tablets spilling out of a white storage bottle with a dark blue lid.

What’s the right way to discard old medicines and supplements?

It’s important to dispose of expired or unused medicines safely. Some medications have specific disposal directions on the label. Fentanyl patches, for example, usually direct the user to flush used or leftover patches. 

Some options for discarding medications:

  • Check with your local pharmacist. Many offer on-site medicine drop-off boxes or other options for discarding your old medicine.
  • Ditto local law enforcement agencies. Many communities offer local drug take-back programs.
  • If you don’t have a take-back option (the best solution) available, many medications can be thrown away in your trash. 

The FDA provides these directions for disposing of prescription and O-T-C medicines at home:

  1. Take the medicine out of its container. Scratch out your personal information on the label and throw away the packaging.
  2. Mix the medicine with dirt, cat litter, or coffee grounds. This makes it less attractive to animals and children.
  3. Place it in something that won’t leak or spill, such as an empty can or storage bag.
  4. Throw the container in the garbage. 

Can I flush old medication down the sink or toilet?

loose pills of various shapes and colors on a white table

You should only flush medicines that are on the FDA’s “flush list.” Medicines that are flushed in your home impact the environment and may contaminate surface and drinking water supplies. (The FDA’s paper on this topic found that the risk to the environment of the 15 medicines they studied was negligible, but more studies are needed, and it stands to reason that adding unused or expired medicines to our water systems is not a good solution.) You can see the flush list — along with disposal instructions for each of the medicines — on the FDA’s website page

Medicines and supplements aren’t the only things that will deteriorate if not stored properly, of course. Learn how to store leftover paint, wine, and spices, too!

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