It’s Probably Time to Clean Out Your Medicine Cabinet


April 4, 2023

Spring cleaning underway? With plenty of sunshine on the horizon, you might be yearning for a fresh space and clutter-free living. Just don’t forget about your bathroom – and we’re not talking about the toilet and sink. While you’re wiping down the tub and reorganizing your countertops, take a few minutes to go through an oft-forgotten treasure trove of clutter: your medicine cabinet. 

It’s easy to forget about your medicine cabinet when you’re making a cleaning to-do list. With your prescriptions on auto-pilot, you may not give it another thought once you stash your monthly meds inside. 

But your collection of medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, requires routine culling. Not only do medicines expire, but they also might pose a risk to people (and pets) in your household if they’re not labeled properly. And once it’s time to toss them, you need to make sure you do it the right way.

Ready to get started? Here’s how to clean out your medicine cabinet.

Step 1: Take inventory.

For starters, pull out your medicine so you can see it all. Even if you don’t keep your meds in an actual bathroom cabinet, you still need to take stock of the contents regularly. About once every six months, get your medicines – including topical ones, like ointments and creams – and lay them all out so you can see expiration dates and the condition of the containers. Look for:

  • Expired medicine
  • Medicine that’s close to expiring
  • Things you no longer need, like one-off prescriptions
  • Bottles or packages that are damaged or otherwise compromised in some way
  • Anything that isn’t in its original packaging

Set aside the expired medicines. We’ll talk about how to dispose of those in the next section. For medicine or other products that are expiring soon, make a note or set an alarm on your phone to throw them out once they expire. 

If any of the packaging shows signs of damage, set those products aside, too. Same goes for medicine you can’t identify. That might include, for example, pills in bubble packs without labels or bottles with the label torn off or faded.

And if there’s anything in your medicine cabinet that you no longer need, like an old bottle of post-op anti-nausea meds, you’ll need to dispose of those, too. It might seem wasteful to throw out a prescription that’s still in date, but medicine is prescribed for a specific purpose. Unless your doctor gives you the go-ahead to keep it for later use, get rid of unused leftovers.

You can keep anything that doesn’t fall into one of these categories and organize them back into the cabinet. For everything else, move on to step two.

Step 2: Get rid of old medicine the right way.

Now that you’ve culled the cabinet, it’s time to toss anything that’s expired or damaged. But you probably know not to just throw them in the trash bin and call it a day. Medications, like other potentially hazardous materials, require special handling. For full details on what to do with drugs you don’t need anymore, check out the FDA’s guidelines on medication disposal.

In short, here are three ways to get rid of expired or unwanted medication:

  • Take them to a drug take-back program. One of the easier ways to toss old meds is to bring them to a local take-back program. This is actually the FDA’s preferred method of drug disposal. Just mark through identifying information on the packaging and turn them in to a drug take-back program. Check out this locator (or this one) to find programs near you.
  • Flush them. You can flush certain medications safely. Use this list as a guide, but if you’re in doubt, err on the side of not flushing. Better to use one of the other methods than risk plumbing or environmental problems by flushing drugs that shouldn’t be flushed.
  • Throw them away with precautions. If you can’t find a take-back program and can’t flush your meds, throw away expired or unwanted drugs at home – with the right precautions. First, dump all the expired medicine out of the original packaging and mix it together. Add cat litter, dirt or used coffee grounds in with the meds. Bag it up and toss with your normal trash. Then mark out all identifying info on the bottles and recycle or throw them away separately.

These are general guidelines. Your state or county may have different rules, so check with your pharmacist or local law enforcement about how to dispose of medications properly.

Step 3: Store & organize your meds safely.

While you’re cleaning out your medicine cabinet, now’s a good time to make sure it’s organized in a way that makes sense – for everyone in your family.

Medicine should be:

  • Accessible to the adults who need it
  • Clearly organized by person
  • Kept in its original packaging whenever possible
  • Stored in its ideal temperature & conditions

That last point might mean that some of your medicine can’t be stored in the same place as all the others. And because medicine cabinets tend to be in bathrooms, your cabinet might not actually be the best place for medicine thanks to the humidity.

Check the labels on your drugs and try to find an appropriate place for them. That might mean using clear plastic storage tubs instead of a cabinet. As a perk, this also gives you more room to organize them.

It also probably goes without saying, but keep medicine out of reach of children and pets, even if it’s for them. Only adults should be in charge of dosing. So keep kids’ and pets’ medication accessible to you but not to them.

Step 4: Teach your family about medicine safety.

Once you’ve got your medicine tidied up, take a few minutes to go over medicine safety with your family, especially if you have kids. This includes proper storage and responsible use (for those old enough to dose themselves).

Younger kids shouldn’t handle medicine on their own, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start young when teaching them about medicine safety. Some tips:

  • Explain what medicine is and why we take it. You know your kids, so you can decide when they’re old enough for this conversation.
  • Avoid calling medicine “candy” to younger kids. It might make them want it more or try it on their own, when you’re not around.
  • Teach older kids how to take medicine responsibly and what to do with medicine when it’s expired or damaged.

For adults and older teens who might have access to the medicine cabinet, make sure everyone knows where the medicine is and what each drug does. You’ll need to strike a balance between information and safety when it comes to teens. For more tips on how to handle medicine safely with teens, reach out to your kid’s doctor.

Cleaning up your medicine cabinet might sound like an unnecessary extra chore, but it’s important to take stock regularly. Weeding out outdated and damaged meds can help keep your family safer, and disposing of them the right way can help protect other people, animals and the environment.