Medicine Cabinet Clean-Out

Every time I open my medicine cabinet I think, “Boy I really need to clean this out.” But when I start to think it through, a little flutter of panic somewhere leads me to say, “Yeah, I’ll get to that later.” Old medication, old sunscreen, old make-up. Even if the majority of it is comprised of natural ingredients, I don’t want to flush it and and pollute my wastewater–and is letting this stuff slowly degrade in the landfill any better? I realize I’m trying to protect the environment by storing the expired products in my medicine cabinet–and the clutter-aversion I have is clearly at odds with this strategy.

But today’s the day–I have devised a plan of attack. It starts with determining what needs to be trashed (tips 1 through 3 are courtesy of Donna Smallin author of Unclutter Your Home (Storey, 1999)) and then tackling the greenest disposal methods. Here it goes.

What to toss:

• Dispose of expired prescription medicines and any non-prescription medicines more than 2 years old. They undergo changes in chemical makeup over time, causing the to lose their potency.

• Antibiotics should be disposed of regardless of expiration date. They work only when taken for the prescribed course of treatment, which is usually 10 to 14 days. Taking antibiotics for less than the prescribed course builds up your body’s immunity to antibiotic treatment, which can make it more difficult to treat future illnesses.

• Throw out sunscreen that is more than 2 years old. When in doubt, throw it out because it will be less effective.

• Skin care products, whether all natural or not, go bad. Check for expiration dates on packaging–and if there isn’t a date, use your best judgment. Old skin care products can become tainted with bacteria and harm your skin–some experts suggest disposing of anything you haven’t used in three months.

• Make up turns bad as well–and can harm you if tainted. Check expiration dates. And remember that once opened and exposed to air and light, all make-up has a limited timeframe.

How to toss
In a study published in 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) collected and analyzed water samples from 139 streams in 30 states. The goal of the study was to measure concentrations of 95 wastewater-related organic chemicals in water. And guess what? One or more of these chemicals were found in 80 percent of the streams sampled. Half of the streams contained seven or more of these chemicals, and about one-third of the streams contained 10 or more of these chemicals. Pharmaceutical and personal-care products are to blame for many of the chemicals found in the USGS study. Research has shown that there can be effects on aquatic organisms like fish and frogs.

• Don’t flush old products or medications! Even if we just focused on not flushing unused medications down the toilet, it could make a difference. Individuals aside, one study estimated the nation’s nursing homes discard anywhere from $73 million to $378 million worth of drugs a year. Some are incinerated, but many are flushed.

• See if your local household hazardous-waste collection program accepts expired or unused medicines.

• Check to see if your pharmacy has a drug recycling program that disposes of unused or expired drugs in an environmentally safe manner.

If you can’t find an official method of disposal, The Florida Department of Environmental Protection suggests these steps for disposing old medication:

1. Keep in the original container. This will help identify the contents if they are accidentally ingested.

2. Mark out your name and prescription number for safety.

3. For pills add some water or soda to start dissolving them and then, as with liquids, add something inedible like cat litter or dirt.

4. Close the lid and secure with duct or packing tape.

5. Place the bottle(s) inside an opaque (non see-through) container like a detergent container.

6. Tape that container closed.

7. Hide the container in the trash. Do not put it in the recycle bin.

So much work to clean out the medicine cabinet! I think the best lesson here is to be very aware when buying personal care products and medicine. Check expiration dates before you buy something, and only buy enough that you will use in a relatively short timeframe.

Or why not make your beauty products? Care2 has endless formulas for homemade beauty care products that are made from water-friendly kitchen cupboard ingredients that are made in small doses, super inexpensive, safe for you, and safe for the planet. See our True Beauty section for more.

By Melissa Breyer, Senior Editor, Care2


Fi T.
Past Member 12 months ago

Recycle or reuse what seems to be useless

Winn Adams
Winn Adams4 years ago


Sam M.
Sam E M4 years ago

Some good advice in the article and responding posts.
However, old meds should always be taken to a pharmacy to be disposed of. The complicated 7-step method given above which ends by disposal in the trash bin is a definite no-no for me.
As mentioned in my response to a similar article here on Care2, most beauty products mention on the label the number of months it's safe to use after opening, and we put that date on the product itself in marker pen.

Danuta Watola
Danuta W5 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Michele Wilkinson

I need to do this, especially my make up!

G. A.
G A R5 years ago

I have needles from injector pens that need disposed of. I use an empty small bleach bottle, write "do not recycle" all over it with a sharpie, and when it is full I super glue or liquid nail the top on. then put in the trash. I have not been able to find anyone to take the needles since they are from a injector pen. No pharmacy around here will take expired meds either, but they all gave me an envelope to mail expired meds to someplace. costs around 3 or 4 dollars.

Monique D.
Mon D6 years ago

Thanks for the tips, but number one to me is to recycle at hazard waste depot or pharmacy

Sylvia W.
Sylvia W6 years ago

To dispose of meds, better than putting them in the trash which winds up in the landfill and ultimately the water, find a local drop-off center on this site;

Jane L7 years ago


Margaretha van Egmond
No fwd van E7 years ago

Thanks for sharing