We're reader-supported. If you buy through our links, we may earn a commission at no cost to you.

How to Tell If a Lemon Is Bad

The sour truth about lemons is that they sooner or later go bad. Here’s the lowdown on when and how.

As you open your fridge to prepare a refreshing drink, your excitement quickly turns to disappointment: you lay your eyes on a mushy and moldy lemon with an equally unpleasant smell.

We’ve all been there. While we all have a role to play in reducing food waste, it’s natural to reach for your phone and start searching for solutions. How can you tell if a lemon has gone bad? Can you eat a bad lemon, or should you throw it away?

Let’s explore these questions and more to help you decide what to do.

Do Lemons Go Bad?

Lemons go bad over time. Just like other citrus fruits, lemons have a limited shelf life and will eventually spoil.

The exact time it takes for lemons to go bad can vary depending on various factors, including how fresh the lemons were when you bought them and whether you refrigerated them or kept them in the pantry.

How to Tell If a Lemon Has Gone Bad

Before we dive into identifying bad lemons, let’s discuss what to expect from a fresh lemon.

Fresh lemons should feel firm and heavy for their size, with bright yellow rinds. The skin should be smooth, waxy, and free of bruises or soft spots. When cut open, the flesh should be juicy and plump, with a golden yellow color and a refreshing citrus aroma.

If a lemon has gone bad, it will have a soft and mushy texture, with dark spots and possibly covered in white mold. The rind may also appear shriveled or discolored. Other signs of a bad lemon include an unpleasant odor and a bitter taste. If you come across such a lemon, it’s best to throw it away and not eat it.

Can You Get Sick From Eating a Spoiled Lemon?

Yes, eating spoiled lemons can make you sick, especially if you’re allergic to molds or belong to an at-risk group of food poisoning.

Spoiled lemons can be overgrown with harmful, disease-causing bacteria that can cause foodborne illness. So if you come across a bad lemon, err on the side of caution—resist the temptation of salvaging it and throw it away instead.1Leff, J. W., & Fierer, N. (2013). Bacterial communities associated with the surfaces of fresh fruits and vegetables. PloS one, 8(3), e59310. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0059310

Some people are at a higher risk of getting sick from eating bad food than others.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this includes children younger than 5 years, pregnant women and their unborn babies, adults aged 65 and older, and people with weakened immune systems.2(2022, August 10). People With a Higher Risk of Food Poisoning. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Retrieved May 9, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/people-at-risk-food-poisoning.html

If you or somebody else in your household belong to one of these groups, it’s essential to take extra precautions and ensure that the lemons you eat are fresh and washed under running water.

It’s also crucial to take extra caution when it comes to spoiled lemons if you’re allergic to molds.

Bad lemons may have mold growth. In turn, eating a moldy lemon can trigger an allergic reaction, which can range from mild symptoms, such as sneezing and itching, to severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing and anaphylaxis.3USDA (2013, August 22). Molds on Food: Are They Dangerous. Food Safety and Inspection Service. Retrieved May 9, 2023, from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/molds-food-are-they-dangerous

How Long Do Lemons Last, And How to Store Them?

As a general rule, whole lemons can last up to 10 days at room temperature and up to 3 weeks if refrigerated from the date of purchase.

To maximize the shelf life of your lemons, store them in a cool, dark, and dry spot, such as your pantry. Remember to provide proper ventilation by placing the lemons in a mesh bag or an open container. Keep them nicely spaced out to encourage airflow and maintain their freshness.

When it comes to refrigerating lemons, the key is to keep them either on a shelf or in the crisper drawer, but make sure the humidity setting is low. By opting for lower humidity, you prolong the lemons’ shelf life.

Store cut lemons in the refrigerator, in an airtight container or tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, where they will keep for up to a week. The sooner you eat the lemon slices, the fresher they will be.

Bottom Line

Although an old lemon or a bruised lemon may be perfectly safe to eat, it’s important to watch out for the signs of spoilage and check if a lemon is bad before eating it.

Generally, a lemon is bad if it has brown spots, a mushy texture, bad smell, or moldy peel. If you notice any of these signs of spoilage, err on the side of caution and toss the lemon in the compost bin.

Store lemons in the pantry, where they will keep for up to 10 days, or in the fridge, where they will stay fresh for up to 3 weeks.

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.