Shelf life is the length of time that a commodity may be stored without becoming unfit for use, consumption, or sale. In other words, it might refer to whether a commodity should no longer be on a pantry shelf (unfit for use), or just no longer on a supermarket shelf (unfit for sale, but not yet unfit for use). It applies to cosmetics, foods and beverages, medical devices, medicines, explosives, pharmaceutical drugs, chemicals, tyres, batteries and many other perishable items. In some regions, an advisory best before, mandatory use by or freshness date is required on packaged perishable foods. The concept of expiration date is related but legally distinct in some jurisdictions.
"Sell by date" is a less ambiguous term for what is often referred to as an "expiration date". Most food is still edible after the expiration date. A product that has passed its shelf life might still be safe, but quality is no longer guaranteed. In most food stores, waste is minimized by using stock rotation, which involves moving products with the earliest sell by date from the warehouse to the sales area, and then to the front of the shelf, so that most shoppers will pick them up first and thus they are likely to be sold before the end of their shelf life. Some stores can be fined for selling out of date products; most if not all would have to mark such products down as wasted, resulting in a financial loss.
The expiration date of pharmaceuticals specifies the date the manufacturer guarantees the full potency and safety of a drug. Most medications continue to be effective and safe for a time after the expiration date. A rare exception is a case of renal tubular acidosis purportedly caused by expired tetracycline. A study conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration covered over 100 drugs, prescription and over-the-counter. The study showed that about 90% of them were safe and effective as long as 15 years past their expiration dates. Joel Davis, a former FDA expiration-date compliance chief, said that with a handful of exceptions - notably nitroglycerin, insulin and some liquid antibiotics - most expired drugs are probably effective.
Nearly all chemical reactions can occur at normal temperatures (although different reactions proceed at different rates). However most reactions are accelerated by high temperatures, and the degradation of foods and pharmaceuticals is no exception. The same applies to the breakdown of many chemical explosives into more unstable compounds. Nitroglycerine is notorious. Old explosives are thus more dangerous (i.e. liable to be triggered to explode by very small disturbances, even trivial jiggling) than more recently manufactured explosives. Rubber products also degrade as sulphur bonds induced during vulcanization revert; this is why old rubber bands and other rubber products soften and get crispy, and lose their elasticity as they age.
Just as temperature increases speed up reactions, temperature decreases reduce them. Therefore, to make explosives stable for longer periods, or to keep rubber bands springy, or to force bacteria to slow down their growth, they can be cooled. That is why shelf life is generally extended by temperature control: (refrigeration, insulated shipping containers, controlled cold chain, etc.) and why some medicines and foods must be refrigerated. Since such storing of such goods is temporal in nature and shelf life is dependent on the temperature controlled environment, they are also referred to as cargo even when in special storage to emphasize the inherent time-temperature sensitivity matrix.
In Hong Kong, prepackaged food which from the microbiological point of view is highly perishable and is therefore likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health, are required to use the 'Use by' label instead of the 'Best before' label. Examples include pasteurised fresh milk, packed egg and ham sandwiches, etc. Dates are usually presented in the DD MM YY (or YYYY) format.
The concept of shelf life applies to other products besides food and drugs. Gasoline has a shelf life, although it is not normally necessary to display a sell-by date. Exceeding this time-frame will introduce harmful varnishes, etc. into equipment designed to operate with these products, i.e. a gasoline lawn mower that has not been properly winterized could incur damage that will prevent use in the spring, and require expensive servicing to the carburetor.