KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There are expiration dates on food, batteries and even our beauty products, designed to make sure those products are safe and effective.
But there's another important item, one designed to protect your most precious cargo, that has a limited shelf life, too.
A car seat is arguably the most important product you can buy to ensure your child's safety. Parents spend hours researching the best ones on the market, and spend hundreds of dollars on the top-of-the-line model.
But some parents might not know about the important date attached to every car seat -- or that the clock is ticking on the safety of their child's car seats.
"More times than not, people are actually surprised there's an expiration date," said Daniella Silver, a child passenger safety technician.
They're surprised because most people, like metro mom Catherine Noriega, just don't know.
Noriega is like a lot of moms. Her son's safety and well-being are her top priorities.
"It makes me look at things a little bit more, say 'OK, does it have the expiration date,' say 'OK, let's go check that out,'" she said.
And that expiration dates she speaks of might be in a place you've never even looked.
"With mine, it's on the side, but a lot of them, it's going to be under the shell of the seat," Silver said.
Car seats, along with car seat bases, expire within 6-10 years from the manufacturing date.
That date will be listed one of the following ways: a sticker on the seat, engraved in the plastic or in the booklet that comes with it. And it's often tucked away on the back, bottom or side of the device.
Silver said she's installed more than 400 seats over the past two years.
"Thirty, forty percent of the time, they have a car seat that's been sitting on the shelf for over a year," she said.
And she's seen it all.
"They're always shocked when they find out they have a 2016 or even a 2017 car seat when they just bought it yesterday," she said.
That could mean there's only 4 years left before it expires, depending on the manufacturer.
It's important information for anyone who wants to have multiple children and is thinking about using the same car seat for those kids.
So why does it happen?
"They want to get the old inventory out," Silver said.
"They" being stores, and nationwide, it's not illegal to do so.
"A lot of parents will say to me, 'Do they really expire or is this like a marketing ploy to get us to buy more stuff?' And I always tell them, 'No, actually this really is a big issue,'" Silver said.
After all, we're taking about something that's made out of plastic. Over time, plastic will become more brittle due to extreme temperature cycles -- hot summers, cold winters -- during the course of any given year.
"These will all impact the effectiveness and performance of the plastic," UMKC professor David Van Horn said.
Van Horn invited FOX4 into his lab to show us how plastics wear over time. See the results from the experiment we helped with on FOX4 News at 10 p.m.
"The last thing you want to do is need it to have it's full absorbent power and it not be able to," Silver said. "That can lead to serous injury or death, so it's definitely not something to mess around with."
When it comes to buying a car seat, according to Silver, here's what you need to do:
If you already bought one, make sure the manufacturing date is the same year that you bought it. If not, return it.
If you're shopping for one and there's no date listed on the box, ask a sales associate to open it.
If you're looking to buy one second-hand, be careful.
"You see car seats for sale second-hand, and it makes you double check on that, especially if they've bee in an accident before," Silver said.
The plastic is only made to absorb one force like those that come from car crashes.
We checked thrift stores, including the Salvation Army and Goodwill. They don't accept used car seats because of safety concerns. That being said, they're not very hard to find. A quick search on Craigslist, shows several.
If you're buying second-hand like Noriega did, make sure it's from a trusted source.
"Just do your research. Look into it. Check into it, and if it doesn't sound right, don't do it," Noriega said.
It might sound like a hassle or extra steps, but in the end, experts like Silver say it's worth it.
"We need to make sure we follow these rules so we don't put children's lives at risk," Silver said.
If you're having trouble affording a car seat, you have options. Many places that install them offer free seats if you qualify.
FOX4 held a Q-and-A with a spokesperson from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. See the full Q-and-A, edited for grammar and clarity, below.
Why are there expiration dates on car seats and when did manufacturers start using them? Is there a federal law that requires manufacturers to have expiration dates on car seats?
There is no federal requirement that child restraint manufacturers establish an expiration date on their products. Expiration dates are entirely voluntary, and many manufacturers have chosen to provide them on their labels or stamped into the plastic of their seats.
Some manufacturers started including an expiration date in the late 1990s, and many other manufacturers followed. Car seat manufacturers developed and implement the expiration date concept, labeling car seats with an expiration date following industry practice. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213 does, however, require for car seats to have a date of manufacture listed on their labeling.
The generally accepted expiration date for car seats is about 6 years from their date of manufacture, though that can differ by manufacturer. Many manufacturers increasingly have seats that do not expire for 8 or 10 years, but that is dependent on the specific model even within the same manufacturer.
If you have a question about a specific seat, it’s best to contact that manufacturer, and this is a good resource for their contact information.
Another good resource for questions about car seat expiration dates would be the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association.
What are the risks of using an expired car seat?
NHTSA believes that manufacturers use expiration dates to provide consumers with information on the manufacturer’s expected “useful” life of the car seat. We understand that the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association suggests replacing seats after 6 years if the car seat does not have an expiration date on the seat or in the owner’s manual. NHTSA believes that JPMA’s suggestion is based on factors including the following, but you should check with JPMA for its reasons:
- Possible deterioration of the plastic shell and other parts.
- Possible loss/breakage of parts.
- The possibility that older seats might not be certified as meeting current government safety standards.
Are there any federal laws prohibiting the sale of expired car seats?
No, there are not.
Are there any laws (state or federal) that prohibit the sale of car seats at thrift stores and second-hand stores?
There are no federal laws that prohibit this; we are not aware of any state laws that prohibit this. Several cities have tried to discourage this by passing city ordinances (City of Chicago).
If a consumer is considering using a second-hand car seat, we recommend that the seat meet the following criteria to help ensure its safety:
- The seat has never been involved in a moderate to severe crash.
- The seat has labels stating date of manufacture and model number. You need this information to find out if there is a recall on the car seat or if the seat is too old.
- The seat has no recalls. If you do find a recall on the car seat, you should contact the manufacturer as some problems can be fixed.
- The seat has all its parts. If the seat is missing a part, contact the manufacturer as some parts can be ordered.
- The seat has its instruction book. You can also order the instruction manual from the manufacturer.
This information is on our website as the "Used Car Seat Safety Checklist."