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You’ve finally cleaned out the cabinet under your kitchen and bathroom sink, only to find half-empty containers of cleaning products you’d forgotten about months (even years) ago. Are these products, despite their indeterminate age, still safe and effective to use? Or do household cleaners eventually expire, just like the food we eat?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes: According to experts, cleaning products do, indeed, expire. However, the lifespan of a product can vary greatly, spanning from several months to years, depending on its ingredients and active components.
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“Most cleaning products have preservatives to maintain the shelf life and prevent microbial growth over time, but preservatives themselves can break down over extended periods,” says Syed Naqvi, Chief Innovation Officer at Blueland, a brand known for its eco-friendly cleaning products. Notably, this breakdown of preservatives can negatively impact the potency and cleaning properties of a given product. “There are also ingredients like solvent [and] active ingredients that can evaporate [or] breakdown over time, which can lead to lower efficacy or product even separating in solution,” says Syed. Another effect you might encounter when dealing with past-their-time cleaning products is a change in scent. “You’ll notice products will start to smell different than initially intended as fragrances break down,” he says.
While it’s impossible to speak for every cleaning product on the market, there are some general guidelines to help you determine if a product is past its prime. According to the American Cleaning Institute, disinfectants specifically have a shelf life of about one year, starting from the date of manufacture. After that point, the active ingredients responsible for killing bacteria might become less effective—meaning that the cleaner itself will be less effective, too.
Bleach, too, has a surprisingly short shelf life. According to Clorox, bleach stored away from heat and direct sunlight will stay good for one year, at which point it will start to degrade. Other sources, however, estimate that its lifespan is actually closer to six months.
Beyond disinfectants, household cleaners can include multi-surface sprays, glass and tile cleaners, and more—and while the shelf lives of these products also vary, two years seems to be a safe estimate, according to the brands I spoke to.
“The shelf life of our products is two years. After that, you may begin to see changes in the way they look, smell, or work,” says a representative from Seventh Generation. “However, your product could be older than that and still work perfectly well. Light, heat, and other factors can age products faster, so if it hasn’t been exposed to them it may be just fine.”
Syed from Blueland had a similar answer. Rather than traditional bottles of cleaning solution, Blueland sells tablets which are then mixed at home by the consumer, which eliminates the use of single-use plastics and makes for lower-impact shipping. However, the lifespan of these products is comparable to other cleaners on the market. Specifically, Blueland’s products “stay stable for two years in their dry format and one year when dissolved,” says Syed.
If you’re unsure of whether a specific product is past its prime, be sure to look for an expiration date on the package. If there’s no expiration date, the date of manufacture will help you figure out how old the product actually is, which, in turn, can help you determine if it’ll still be effective.