Here’s How To Know When To Throw Your Birth Control Pills Away

Have you ever heard the little diddy that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck? Well, if something’s prescribed like medication, looks like medication, and you have to take it periodically like medication, it’s medication. It sounds self-explanatory, but at the same time I know myself, and there have been times when my family doctor asked about any medications I’d been taking, and oral contraception completely slipped my mind. But, like any other prescription, birth control is medication and should be treated as such, especially because birth control expires, and if you’re careless with your dosage, you might accidentally pop a pill that’s no longer effective.

For me, oral contraception wasn’t exactly the best option. This was partially because it didn’t really matter whether the dosage was high or low, I still felt nauseous taking them every night. But, it also had a lot to do with the fact that I am hopelessly forgetful. Seriously, I could go an entire month without skipping a single day, and that would be the month I forgot to make a check up appointment with my OBGYN to request a refill.

Worst case scenario, I’d have to awkwardly call up and ask the receptionist to make an exception and put a good word in with my pharmacy, but poking into an old box for one day’s worth of meds to buy me some time did cross my mind once or twice. Now, you're probably thinking, "what's the harm in that, Jules, it's just one pill," and you're not wrong, but there's a catch.

Birth control pills may have a relatively long shelf-life, but keep in mind once they expire, they aren't going to be as effective as a fresh pack.

Think of the pack of birth control pills your gynecologist prescribes you like almond milk in your fridge. Once you unscrew the cap, there’s only so much time before a carton goes sour, but left unopened, it can last for awhile. According to Harvard Health, the bold expiration date stamped on prescription and over the counter meds is just a precautionary measure. As it turns out, drug manufacturers are required to etch expirations onto the packaging of medications to ensure the consumer knows up until when a product offers “full potency and safety.”

SELF reports that, according to studies performed by the U.S. government, most medications are safe to consume from one to five years after their expiration date — given they’ve been kept on lock in their original packaging, that is. Still, none of these studies focus on whether or not this is true for birth control pills, which is why even though studies on similar kinds of medication give the go-ahead to consume post-expiration, according to Alexander Chiang, M.D., it still shouldn’t be your first line of defense. He told SELF,

Giving the varying exposures of temperature, ambient humidity, sunlight, etc., there can be some degradation of the active hormones over time and so the manufacturer cannot guarantee effectiveness beyond its own testing period, which is typically 12 months.

So, in theory, you can you pop expired birth control pills in times of desperation. However, as far as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is concerned, there's no telling just how safe or effective expired medications are, and that alone is reason enough not to risk it.

If your birth control pills do expire, it's important to know what other options you have before digging into an old prescription and risking an unwanted pregnancy.

If you primarily bank on birth control pills to keep you without child, it's likely that expired oral contraception isn't going to be much of a stronghold against sperm. Sure, taking old birth control pills probably won’t harm your body, but representatives from the female health app, Clue, pointed out to Metro UK that it is likely elderly prescriptions will be “ineffective at preventing pregnancy.” In other words, you might want to consider better options before leaning on expired pills for protection.

First of all, there’s always male condoms. Luckily, you don’t need a prescription to purchase rubbers over the counter and, bonus, not only are they 98 percent effective according to Planned Parenthood, there are so many to choose from to enhance the experience. Take it from someone who’s easily paranoid, taking birth control pills you know are expired will hardly put your mind at ease in the bedroom, because there’s always a chance said pack isn’t the dosage with the mostest protection. Drop into your local convenience store, browse the packs of fire and ice to her pleasure types so you can get it on with your partner worry-free.

If you find latex of male condoms to be uncomfortable or irritating, the female condom is another over the counter option worth exploring. It’s made of a strong plastic called polyurethane, and can be inserted into the vagina eight hours before intercourse. Like male condoms, female condoms should be disposed of after use, but unlike male condoms, the female version is only 75 to 82 percent effective according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Additional options include things like spermicide, which is a gel-like substance that stops overachieving sperm from scoring big, and the contraceptive sponge, which is literally a foamy absorbent that blocks sperm from exploring the inner workings of your cervix. Ultimately, it will be super beneficial to experiment with these types of contraceptives to know what you're comfortable with should your birth control pills expire and you need a fall back.

Worst case scenario, Katharine O'Connell White, MD, MPH told Refinery29, you can take expired birth control pills if you have no other options, but a fresh pack is "always the way to go." Do your research, know your options, and make an executive decision from there. As for your old pack of pills, if you have a plan B that's fool-proof, toss the expired pack because you'd rather be safe than sorry.