When your medicine cabinet is full of expired medications or drugs you no longer need, it’s time to clean house. But before you start tossing prescription bottles in the trash or flushing pills down the toilet, you should know there’s a right and a wrong way to dispose of old medications.

“Getting rid of expired or unneeded medications is more important than simply clearing out clutter,” said John Jones, R.Ph., vice president of Enterprise Pharmacy at Geisinger Health System. “When you have expired drugs or medications you don’t need anymore, it’s important to properly dispose of them in order to reduce harm from either accidental ingestion or intentional misuse.”

The best way to get rid of expired, unwanted and unneeded medications is through community drug take-back programs and drop boxes.

“Taking your old medications to a community-sponsored take-back program or drop box ensures that they are properly disposed of without harming any individuals, animals or the environment,” Jones said.

The U.S Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) hosts National Prescription Drug Take-Back events throughout the year, setting up collection sites throughout communities across the country for safe disposal of prescription drugs. Local law enforcement agencies also often sponsor drug take-back drives.

Your local hospital and pharmacy may also take back old medications and properly dispose of them for you.

“You also may find disposal instructions on your prescription bottle,” Jones said. However, if the prescription label or written information doesn’t give you specific instructions, here’s what you should do.

First, look for DEA-authorized collectors for locations to drop off your old medications – these sites may be retail, hospitals, clinic pharmacies and law enforcement locations. Some offer mail-back programs or drop boxes. You can visit the DEA website or call 1-800-882-9539 to find your local authorized collector.

If you need to throw your old medications in the trash, follow these steps:

First, take medications out of their original containers and mix them with a substance like dirt, kitty litter, coffee grounds or something else undesirable.

“Mixing medications with something undesirable makes them unappealing to pets and children as well as making them unrecognizable to people who may sift through the trash looking for drugs,” Jones said.

Next, put the mixture into either an empty can, sealable bag or another type of container that will prevent the medication from leaking or breaking out of a trash bag.

Before tossing out your empty prescription bottles, make sure any identifying information on the label is scratched out and unreadable to protect your identity and privacy.

“If you’re ever unsure of how to dispose of expired drugs or medications you don’t need any more, ask your pharmacist what you can do,” Jones said.