First it was the sunscreen. A friend told me you had to throw out your bottle or tube annually because the lotion expired after a year. I was skeptical, but it was a well-known rule, apparently, around the community pool.
A while later, a mother with three young children told me she had to get rid of her car seat because she was told they expired after about five years.
The expiration, she said, had something to do with the plastic disintegrating. It sounded to me like a ploy by manufacturers to persuade anxious parents to unnecessarily buy a new seat. But who wants to play with the lives of their children?
A few weeks ago, Ford Motor Co announced that it was putting the first-ever expiration date on tires. Six years, the company said, was the longest anyone should keep tires.
Wait a minute. Expiration dates for food like milk and meat I can understand -- those products do go bad. Dates for prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicine make some sense, because presumably they can lose their potency. But tires and car seats? And what about bike helmets? Aren't you supposed to toss them after about three years because the foam begins to fall apart?
Search on the Web and you'll see all these "facts" confirmed in chat rooms and Q-and-As. But dig a little deeper and the truth is more complex and may say as much about planned obsolescence as it does consumer safety.
No, you don't have to throw it out every year. According to the Food and Drug Administration, if there is no expiration date on the container, it means the manufacturer has tested the product and has data showing it is effective for up to three years. So if your lotion has no such date, and many don't, assume it's good for three years.
Some manufacturers do choose to put expiration dates on their lotions, and if you use the product after that date, it may not be as effective, said Kathleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the FDA. The expiration dates are voluntary and are not required by the agency, she noted.
There are federal laws regulating safety standards for car seats, but no expiration dates, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Graco Children's Products, one of the largest manufacturers of child restraint seats, which includes everything from newborn carriers to boosters for 6-year-olds, says it does recommend throwing out a car seat after seven years or so.
That is not because of danger that the plastic is degenerating, said David Galambos, compliance and safety manager for child safety systems with Graco, a unit of Newell Rubbermaid.
"It's not as if you'll hit the expiration date and the plastic will become weak," he said. "The plastic is good for at least 10 years. But regulations and standards are constantly changing."
For example, in both 1999 and 2002, car seats incorporated new methods of buckling in children and attaching the seat to the car. Although parents can still use car seats with older mechanisms, manufacturers can't sell them.
Also, Galambos said, as the car seat ages, "some of the history gets lost, such as whether it was in an accident or not."
"Replacement parts get harder to find," he said. "Webbing and such start falling apart."
But, he acknowledged, the seven-year date builds in a pretty hefty buffer zone.
"We're not seeing any disintegration until a minimum of 10 years," he said.