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Deleting Cookies

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One thing you may have noticed if you have started writing Javascript to use cookies is that there is no actual delete command that can be used to delete a cookie after you have created it. This doesn't mean that you can't delete cookies, it just means that you need to understand how cookies work in order to be able to control when the system will delete them for you.

When you create a session cookie it will continue to exist for as long as the browser remains open and will be deleted as soon as the browser is closed. This is because session cookies are actually retained in memory by the browser and are never actually stored anywhere. You do not specify an expiry date when creating a session cookie.

If you want a cookie to last for a longer (or shorter) time than you get wioth a session cookie you need to create a first party cookie instead. With a first party cookie the cookie is actually stored in a file on your visitor's hard drive. You specify an expiry date/time when creating a first party cookie that defines how long the cookie is to be retained on the hard drive. The cookie isn't necessarily deleted when that date/time is reached but cookies that have passed their expiry date/'time are ignored and so as far as the browser is concerned they don't exist.

So how does this help us if we decide that we need to delete a cookie befre the date/time that it is set to expire? Well the solution is quite simple, we change the expiry date of the cookie so that it will be considered to have already expired. Rather than having to remember what to do each time, let's just create a small function for deleting whichever cookie that we want.

function del_cookie(name) {
document.cookie = name +
'=; expires=Thu, 01-Jan-70 00:00:01 GMT;';

Now all we need to do is to call this del_cookie() function passing it the name of whatever cookie it is that we wish to delete. The function will update the expiry date on the cookie to one long in the past so that the cookie will be considered to be expired and will be ignored by the browser exactly the same as if it didn't exist.

Why choose that particular date for setting the expiry date to delete the cookie? Well it just happens that all of the date processing within Javascript sees the 1st January 1970 as its starting date and actually records all date/times internally as the number of milliseconds from midnight on that day. Using that date therefore is effectively equivalent to setting the expiry to zero which means that the cookie will be deleted even if your visitor has the date on their computer set incorrectly. Were we to choose a more recent date it would be possible (although very unlikely) that one of our visitors might have their computer date set incorrectly to one earlier than the exipry that we chose and so our attempt to delete the cookie wouldn't then work for them.

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