Oh, sh*t! you completely forgot to put the cheese back in the fridge before you left for lunch with your bezzies. But do you really have to throw it away? How long can cheese sit out, anyway?

After all, allowing perfectly good cheese to go moldy is a crime, and you’re leaving yourself open to serious repercussions from the Cheese Police (not really; we lied. But it should be).

There might be actual health repercussions from your dairy-based neglect. What if it’s gone moldy? What if you accidentally eat said mold? Or can it be off without you even realizing it, away from its safe haven of the fridge?

So, let’s take a look at how long cheese can survive when it’s been sitting out.

geometric illustration of how long cheese can sit out headerShare on Pinterest
Daniel Grizelj/Getty Images

No one wants to waste food or the money we spent buying it. And when you look at the deets about food waste, you can be tempted to go ahead and chow down, even if your cheese does look a little suspect.

After all, a mind-melting quarter of all dairy products are wasted before they’re eaten, contributing towards 1.3 billion tons of wasted food each year. Yikes.

But food guilt isn’t a good reason to be eating janky cheese — that’s just gross. So, if you’re thoughtfully handling some cheese right now, we put together a table to help you decide which cheeses to eat and which to yeet.

Soft cheesesHard cheeses
ACTION TO TAKE: Throw out if they’ve been unrefrigerated for 2 hours.ACTION TO TAKE: Rewrap and refrigerate if they’ve been left out — the harder the cheese, you longer you can leave it.
ricotta/queso blanco/mascarpone (super soft, and fastest to spoil)Parmesan (godlike toughness, lasting about 24 hours)
cream cheese/cottage cheeseGouda
mac and cheese (yup, ‘fraid so)cheddar (be careful with young cheddars)
string cheesepecorino
briemanchego
fresh mozzarellaPecorino Romano
CamembertEmmental

Cheese is actually less prone to going moldy than other dairy products, as anyone who’s ever left a pint of milk on the counter will confirm. But that’s not much consolation when you’ve just taken a bite of your surviving cheese, and felt furriness between your teeth. Barf!

You might’ve spat it out with enough force to break the sound barrier, but is it too late? Are you poisoned? Well, accidentally eating mold is no doubt unpleasant (as is doing it deliberately), but here’s how it’ll go down.

Side effects of eating moldy cheese

OK, first off — the chances are that you’re not going to get seriously ill from eating moldy cheese. Especially if you’ve simply left your soft cheese out for more than 2 hours. Phew

Moldy cheese can make you ill due to the presence of mycotoxins, a toxic substance found in mature mold (i.e., it’s really fuzzy and obvious). But to make you really ill, there’ll need to be a lot of them — more than you’ll find in your sad, neglected cheese.

So, you’re more at risk if your cheese was already moldy and you just didn’t notice. Molds can contain E.coli, Listeria, and Salmonella, and, spoiler alert, none of those are a fun time.

Look out for vomiting, stomach pain, and diarrhea, and check in with your doc if you feel super rough.

Will eating moldy cheese kill me?

It’s very, very unlikely — but possible.

You did it: You ate the mold. It was bad. Your pulse is racing and you’re sweating: Are you about to meet your cheesemaker? Or are you just squicked to high heck?

Chances are it’s just the latter. (And really, who can blame you?) Death from eating mold is extremely rare, but it can happen.

One is the way we mentioned above — if you end up with a severe case of E. coli or salmonella, then, yes, that can be fatal. But for these to develop from eating mold, you’d need to consume an awful lot of it and ignore a lot of medical advice. Neither of those is a great idea, so don’t do them.

Remember those mycotoxins we mentioned? Those in moldy cheese have possible links to liver cancer in humans.

But on the whole, you’ve almost certainly got nothing to fear from moldy cheese. You’d have to be incredibly unlucky — and there’s nothing to fear from cheeses that are meant to be moldy, either!

Well, the idea of cheese turning on its human friends is way too traumatic, right? How can we avoid this near-apocalyptic event?

It’s pretty simple, actually. Firstly, give your cheese a good check when you buy it. Look for:

  • fuzz
  • weird colors
  • funky smells (other than the usual)

No bueno, no buy.

Secondly, wrap your cheese thoroughly before you put it in the fridge. Plastic wrap is fine, as is waxed paper followed by aluminum foil. There can be molds and odors lurking in your fridge, waiting to corrupt your poor innocent cheeses. So, wrapping them up keeps them safe and sound.

Thirdly, make sure that the fridge is perfect for cheeses to kick back and chill in. Keep it at a temperature between 34ºF and 38ºF (1ºC and 3ºC), and you’ll keep that cheese on its best behavior.

If you’ve had a memory lapse and left your cheese out of the fridge for a couple of hours, don’t panic — the chances are that it’s still safe to use.

Avoid putting soft cheeses back in the fridge if they’ve exceeded that 2-hour limit. Give them a check and sniff, and if they’re looking a bit sad, throw them out. Hard cheeses, on the other hand, can be rewrapped and refrigerated, but you’ll also want to give them a quick once-over.

The harder the cheese, the better they are at fending off the effects of the heat. Parmesan, in particular, handles it like a champ.

If a hunk of fromage is looking a bit moldy, throw it away immediately — but don’t panic if you only discover it halfway through a piece. Although eating large quantities of moldy cheese can make you severely unwell, you’re unlikely to experience any damaging or long-lasting effects. Aside from a strong sense of disgust, because yeuch.

Basically, look after your cheesy friends, and they’ll look after you!