Urge to Purge

The ritual of deep cleaning doesn't just clear the cobwebs from your ceilings (and your head); it's essential for great health, too. Knowing when to pitch everything from medication to your smoke alarm helps you and your family sleep better, stay safer, heal faster and more. This room-by-room guide outlines some surprising expiration dates.

Pillows When to toss:

Replace your pillows every year.

Why:

Hair and body oils will have soaked into a pillow's fabric and stuffing after a year of nightly use, making it a breeding ground for odour-causing bacteria and allergy triggering dust mites. Using protectors can double the life of your pillows.

Mattresses When to toss:

Replace your mattress after 5 to10 years.

Why:

A good mattress lasts 9 to 10 years, according to the National Sleep Foundation, but consider replacing yours every 5 to 7 years if you don't sleep well. A study at Oklahoma State University found that most people who switched to new bedding after five years sleep significantly better and have less back pain.

Smoke alarms When to toss:

Change smoke alarms after 10 years.

Why:

After a decade of continual vigilance, a unit's sensors become less sensitive, putting you at greater risk from smoke or fire should a blaze erupt. Test smoke alarms monthly and replace batteries with new ones every year. To safeguard your family, install alarms on every level of your home, in bedrooms, and outside all sleeping areas.

Air conditioners When to toss:

Keep air conditioners until they die.

Why:

With proper maintenance, including annual servicing, a room or central air conditioner can easily run for up to 15 years, especially if you don't operate it year-round, says Bill Harrison of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers. Check the filter at least every six weeks, particularly in humid weather. "If dirt covers the filter so you can't see the original material or view light through it, clean it or buy a new one," he says.

Vitamins When to toss:

Replace vitamins after two years to maintain their potency.

Why:

Independent tests find that most nutritional supplements are good for three years if stored in a cool, dry place, says William Obermeyer, vice-president for research at Consumer Lab.com. Because the product may have been sitting on store or warehouse shelves for a year, chuck it two years after purchase if there's no expiration date.

Fire extinguishers When to toss:

Replace fire extinguishers every 10 years.

Why:

Portable extinguishers may lose pressure over time and become ineffective whether or not they've been triggered, says Lorraine Carli, national spokesperson for the National Fire Protection Association. If your extinguisher is rechargeable, have it serviced every six years or when the pressure is low. (Look for service companies in the Yellow Pages under fire extinguishers.) Water filters When to toss:

Keep water filters 20 per cent longer than normal.

Why:

"Filters that make health claims like lead removal are designed to provide a margin of safety in case they're not changed on time," says Rick Andrew, operations manager at NSF International, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based company that tests filters. (This applies to most drinking water purifiers, including models from Culligan, Brita and PUR.) Those equipped with expiration indicators (such as trigger lights) last 20 per cent longer than their recommended life so a filter certified to clean 100 gallons actually purifies 120. Filters without an indictor last even longer, cleaning twice the number of gallons claimed.

Cutting boards When to toss:

You can hold on to cutting boards indefinitely.

Why:

How you sanitize the board - and not its age - is what kills bugs such as E. coli and Salmonella. "The decision to replace one is ultimately based on when you think it looks too beat up," says Brenda Wilson, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Even a board with deep cracks or grooves is safe if it's sanitized after each use: Wash the board with detergent and hot water; then rinse and flood with a solution of 1 part full strength white vinegar to 4 parts water and let it sit for 5 minutes. Rinse with clean water, pat with a clean towel and air dry.

Contact lens solution When to toss:

Discard contact lens solution after three months.

Why:

"Once the seal is broken, germs can contaminate bottles that are left uncapped or that lack a backflow device, increasing your risk of infection," says Louise A. Sclafani, an associate professor of ophthalmology at University of Chicago Hospital. Get a new case every three months, too.

Toothbrushes When to toss:

Replace your toothbrush every 3 to 4 months.

Why:

Frayed and worn bristles don't clean as well, leaving teeth more vulnerable to decay.

Eye makeup When to toss:

Throw away eye makeup six months after opening to prevent infection.

Why:

The applicators used to apply mascara, liner and shadow are repeatedly exposed to bacteria in the air and on your lashes; after six months of everyday use, they can overpower the products' preservatives, says John Bailey, chief scientist at the Personal Care Products Council. Liquid products that don't touch the eyes, such as foundation, can be used for up to two years; dry face products like powder and lip items are generally formulated to last at least three.

Antibacterial cream When to toss:

Discard antibacterial cream after one year.

Why:

Beyond a year, the antibiotic is probably still good, but the chemical mix in the ointment may start to go bad, which may make the product less effective.

Dandruff shampoo When to toss:

You can hang on to dandruff shampoo for three years.

Why:

Most medicated shampoo will stay effective at least that long if there isn't an expiration date. Adding water to an almost empty bottle to get the last bit from the bottom dilutes preservatives and makes them less effective, so toss the remainder after several days.

Rubbing alcohol When to toss:

Use rubbing alcohol until the bottle is empty.

Why:

"Rubbing alcohol practically lasts forever," says Abigail Salyers, a professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Even after exposure to air, the alcohol/water solution remains stable for years, if not decades, and the alcohol kills any microbes that might get into the bottle.

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