How To Tell If A Lemon Is Bad (With Pictures!)

The old saying about making lemonade when life gives you lemons does not consider the possibility of life giving you a bad lemon. Not many things in life taste quite as terrible as bad lemonade. But how are you supposed to know when that happens? Thankfully it’s pretty easy, and there are a few ways you can tell if a lemon is bad.

lemon cut in half

A bad lemon has bruising, discoloration, brown spotting on the peel, and soft spots. In advanced stages of decay, lemons can have green or white mold spots on their shriveled peels, and the lemon may be dried out inside. Such a lemon is full of bacteria and should be discarded.

Because lemons and lemon juice are popularly used as preservatives, it’s easy to forget that lemons also eventually decay, even though they may last a bit longer than other fruits. That’s why we can quickly end up with a forgotten lemon somewhere in a cupboard or the fridge. It isn’t always clearly visible if the lemon is still good, so let’s study the signs more closely.

lemons on a brown board with text 'how to tell if a lemon is spoiled'

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How Can You Tell If A Lemon Has Gone Bad?

As with most produce, lemons have a life cycle, and lemons are excellent and healthy for humans to eat for an extended part of their life cycle. Lemons have different signs and stages that they go through as they age and, eventually, completely decompose. But there are 6 signs that you can look out for to help sort the bad lemons from the good ones.

Sign #1: A Bad Lemon Has Bruising On The Skin

According to FDA regulations, you should always buy the best possible product right from the start, including choosing fresh lemons over bad ones. Do not buy a lemon if you notice that the skin is bruised or damaged, as this is already the first noticeable sign of a bad lemon. It will only deteriorate from here on and begin to show more bad signs.

The bruising isn’t always easy to notice due to the rough texture of the lemon’s skin. But the bruising is often accompanied by some discoloration, making it a bit easier.

Some fruits (including lemons) don’t do too well in extreme temperatures; that is why you should always store lemons in your refrigerator’s crisp drawer to get the best longevity from your lemons. Of course, you will eventually still notice all the signs, but the crisp drawer will help keep the bruising away for a little bit longer than usual.

Sign #2: A Bad Lemon Has Stages Of Discoloration On The Skin

You will find significant discoloration on the skin of the lemon as it deteriorates and ultimately decomposes. Some of the earlier stages will show a brownish color on the skin. Ultimately, as the bacteria grow more and more rampantly on the lemon, the color will start to change drastically. You may also begin to notice some green and white mold patches on the lemon’s skin.

discolored lemon

You will first notice mold growth on the lemon, appearing as small velvet circles on the skin. It’s easy to think you can simply remove the thick skin and still use the lemon, but this is not really safe. A lemon’s skin is softer than you might think, so you never know how deep the roots of the mold actually branch into the fruit.

The type of mold bacteria found on lemons is called mycotoxins, which are a health hazard; you should never assume that a moldy lemon is still safe to use. To keep yourself and all your loved ones healthy, if you notice this mold growth on lemons in the refrigerator, you should discard the lemons and clean the fridge since the spores will still be hanging around.

moldy spoiled lemon

Sign #3: A Bad Lemon May Have Shriveled Skin

In some ways, lemons don’t age too differently from humans. Nobody wants to admit it, but wrinkles and shriveled skin come with old age. We can’t get away from it, and neither can a lemon. The difference is that humans can age with wisdom and elegance, leaving behind love and a powerful legacy. In contrast, lemons only age with sourness, clumps of bacteria, and food poisoning.

Perhaps there are more parallels between life and lemons than what the saying is commonly understood to mean. Either way, by the time the lemon’s skin becomes overly shriveled, more than the normal rough texture, you can know with certainty that it has outlived its prime and will be nothing but a dried-out shell. It would be best if you didn’t even consider using it anymore.

shriveled lemons

Sign #4: A Bad Lemon’s Skin Has Soft Spots

We previously mentioned that the skin would become discolored. With that discoloration, the skin can actually become soft in those same spots; these are also the spots that were slightly bruised in the beginning. Also, this softness will often appear even before it shows any of the moldy, furry growth on the lemon’s skin.

It is still possible to use lemon if it has some slight brown discoloration on its skin and if the skin has some soft spots on it, but only if the flesh of the lemon is not discolored and overly soft, too. In this case, you need more than one sign, combining the soft spots and discoloration with things like mold or the bad smell, which we will discuss later.

Sign #5: The Flesh Of A Bad Lemon Is As Dry As A Desert

If the lemon’s skin has dried up, it has no life left to give; most likely, you will find that the flesh of the lemon is also dried out. The cells that held the juice will be shriveled and dry; there will be little (if any) moisture left inside of it. If the lemon still has any flavor at this point, it will not be very tasty, so you should rather discard the lemon anyway. (This is the same for other citrus, like oranges!)

Sign #6: Bad Lemons Will Have A Moldy Smell

Many previous signs will work their way into the final sign, mainly those of the discoloration and mold growth. As the lemon decomposes, the stages of mold growth will increase. At first, the lemon is still salvageable if it only shows slight discoloration on the skin. Nonetheless, if you do not use the lemon in time, the bad spots will show themselves more prominently.

As the mold bacterium grows and branches more into the flesh of the lemon, these mold spores will also spoil the flesh of the lemon, and none of these are good signs. It will eventually get to the point where the mold will be so strong that the lemon’s smell will be filled with the added smell of mildew.

The mildew smell will combine with the sour scent of the lemon to create a sickening new, almost chemical-like smell that fills an entire room and lingers even after you’ve discarded the lemon. If you walk into the kitchen and your lemons smell like this, the fruit is already beyond redemption. This bad lemon will only disappoint. None of us like the taste of mold or the harmful toxins you find in it.

If you happen to get some in your food, maybe through some cross-contamination by maybe not rinsing the knife after you’ve cut into a bad lemon, it is best to start with a clean slate. Discard the food and start over. Begin again with clean utensils because it is never a good idea to contaminate other food with bad food as this can still be hazardous to your health.


Lemons are amazing in so many sweet and savory ways – from lemonade to chicken and veggies! However, you should be careful that you don’t use a spoiled lemon. Look out for the first signs of discoloration, and never eat a lemon that is moldy or shriveled.

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