Here’s How Long Milk Really Lasts—And How to Make It Last Longer

We've all seen a milk sell-by date and formed our own opinions on if it's good or bad. But how long is milk really good for, beyond the sell-by date? You might be throwing out your milk way too soon.

We need to settle this once and for all: How long does milk last? Some sources say it’s good past its expiration date and others say to toss it out after just a few days of being open. We decided to get to the bottom of this conundrum.

According to Eat By Date, once opened, all milk lasts four to seven days past its printed date, if refrigerated. If unopened, whole milk lasts five to seven days, reduced-fat and skim milk last seven days, and non-fat and lactose-free milk last seven to ten days past its printed date, if refrigerated. Did you know that you actually shouldn’t put these 20 foods in the fridge?

how long is milk good for milk sell by daterd.com

How long does milk last after the sell-by date?

But let’s clear some things up. There’s a huge difference between milk date labels that say “sell by,” “use by,” “best if used by,” and “expires on.” “The phrase ‘best if used by’ is used to indicate quality only—even after this date, food is safe to eat. Another phrase, ‘expires on,’ is used to indicate the day that deterioration begins, after which a product may become unsafe to consume,” says Lindsey Pasieka, an investigator for ConsumerSafety.org. “‘Sell-by’ dates tell a milk seller, like a grocery store, when the product should leave the shelves–either in a customer’s arms or in the trash. For many, ‘use by’ and ‘sell by’ are essentially marketing terms. These allow milk producers to tell consumers when the peak freshness of the product is. They do not indicate the exact date the milk will ‘go bad.'”

These labels vary from state to state, so it’s not unusual for the carton to get tossed while it’s still good and safe for consumption just because of a milk sell-by date. However, it’s important to note that expiration dates vary based on what kind of milk you’re purchasing, how it’s stored, and how it’s packaged. For example, “With raw or unpasteurized milk, these spoilage rates increase, as with milk made without preservatives,” says Pasieka. “Contamination can also jump-start bacteria growth, leading to sour milk.” Do you know why Canadians drink milk out of bags?

How long can milk sit out?

And of course, where and how you store your milk is pivotal to its freshness. “How long does milk last after the sell-by date?” and “How long can milk sit out?” are two completely different questions with completely different answers. According to the FDA, if milk is left unrefrigerated for more than two hours, it’s considered unsafe to consume. Believe it or not, there’s even a specific location in your fridge where you should be keeping your milk—and it’s not on the door’s shelves. According to Jen Giambroni, Director of Communications at Real California Milk, milk should be stored at 38° to 40°F in the same container it came in, and far away from the door. When milk is stored on the refrigerator door’s shelves, it’s being exposed to warm air each time it’s opened, which encourages bacterial growth. “Also, be sure to tightly close the lid to your milk cartons,” Pasieka adds. “This helps reduce accidental contamination and odors from other refrigerated products.”

If you think that your milk might have prematurely expired, use your senses’ best judgment. “Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor, or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten,” says the United States Department of Agriculture. Find out how to store every type of leftover food.

Make it last longer

There are a couple of ways to lengthen the shelf-life of that bottle or carton of milk. A couldn’t-be-easier trick to make milk last longer? Add a pinch of table salt as soon as you first open it. Close it up again and shake it—the salt should give the milk an additional few days of freshness. (This also works for half-and-half!)

And what about freezing milk? Can you freeze milk? Yes, you certainly can. “Milk can last for several months in the freezer, but for the best quality, we advise consuming it within the first month,” says Nicole Doster, Deputy Editor with our sister site, Taste of Home. “After that point, milk will begin to separate and turn grainy.” Doster also advises that skim milk will respond better to freezing than milk with a higher fat content, and to keep the milk in an airtight container so that it won’t absorb flavor from the other contents of the fridge. Make sure there is about an inch and a half of extra space in the container to safeguard against the liquid expanding as it freezes. To thaw milk, just pop the frozen milk into the fridge overnight and make sure to shake it before drinking our using. Next, find out what the colors of milk labels actually mean.

Sources:

  • EatByDate: “How Long Does Milk Last?”
  • Consumer Safety
  • FDA: “Milk Guidance Documents & Regulatory Information”
  • USDA: “Food Product Dating”
  • Nicole Doster, Taste of Home Deputy Editor

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Brittany Gibson
Brittany Gibson is a regular contributor to RD.com’s culture, food, health, and travel sections. She was previously an editorial intern for RD.com and Westchester Magazine. Her articles have appeared on Buzzfeed, Business Insider, AOL, Yahoo, and MSN, among other sites. She earned a BA in English from the University of Connecticut