Do essential oils expire? What is the shelf life of essential oils? These are really important questions to answer, since the answers to these questions will affect your pocketbook, but also, they can affect your health.
Of course, if they are unhealthy, you don't want to use products that have expired. At the same time, you obviously don't want to toss your essential oils if they're still good. Here's what you need to know about essential oil shelf life so that you can make good decisions about which oils to keep and which to toss.
Why Does the Shelf Life of Essential Oils Matter?
While some essential oils are quite affordable, some are quite expensive. And if you use a lot, the cost adds up.
No one wants to pay good money for something only to throw it out, so it only stands to reason that you're wondering, "Do essential oils expire?"
This concern applies to all essential oils, but it really can come into play if you are into DIYing essential oils blends like my Breathe Easy Blend, Hair Growth Blend, Purify Blend, or Antibacterial Blend instead of buying them pre-made.
When making your own essential oil blends, you buy the components of the blend, leaving you with leftover essential oil singles.
You can save money DIYing blends if you end up using up the rest of the oils, but if they end up going bad, your savings are gone.
Also, as you'll soon find out, there are safety concerns to consider as well.
A Common Essential Oil Myth About Shelf Life
There are a lot of essential oil myths out there, but here's a commonly used one about shelf life.
“If a company tells you that their essential oils expire, or that they have a shelf life, then they are not pure essential oils.”
The thought behind this is that pure oils don't contain water or other things that would cause them to go rancid. Also, that pure oils have such great antibacterial and antiviral qualities that they won't spoil if they're pure.
However, pure or not, essential oils can and do change. Here's how.
What Affects the Shelf Life of Essential Oils?
Several things can affect the shelf life of essential oils.
Essential Oils are volatile oils (they easily evaporate — that's why you smell them) and they can oxidize. "Oxidize” means combine or be combined chemically with oxygen.
You know that “antioxidants” in foods are good for you, right? Well, they prevent, or help get rid of, the damage done by “oxidizing.”
In the same way that oxidizing affects foods (and your body), oxygen affects essential oils.
Every time you open your essential oil bottle, oxygen gets in. The oxygen reacts with the oil and oxidizes it, in a similar way that exposure to the air causes an apple to turn brown.
According to Robert Tisserand’s Book On Essential Oil Safety,
oxygen can change the chemical composition of an essential oil by reacting with some of the constituents.
Think about that. If you're changing the chemical composition of an essential oil negatively by exposing it to oxygen, then you basically have a different essential oil than you thought you had.
The properties that you bought it for might not be in the essential oil any longer. Plus, there will be new properties--some of which might not be desirable.
There is varying information on this, however, it is known that light is something that affects essential oil shelf life. That's the main reason why it's recommended to store your essential oils in colored bottles, which helps to minimize this effect.
A study was done on Sweet Orange Oil in which the oil underwent significant changes in its composition when it was exposed to UV light at 20°C for 50 minutes. There were decreases in certain constituents and new constituents resulted. So technically, the oil was a totally different oil after this exposure. (Source)
Additionally, fennel oil has been shown to oxidize more quickly in light than in dark. (Source)
Heat also can affect essential oil shelf life, however, this hasn't been as widely studied.
Heat causes volatile compounds to evaporate more quickly. But, of course, the lid of the bottle would need to be removed in order for this to happen.
It appears, from the studies that have been done, that the effect of heat on an essential oil will vary depending on the components of that specific oil. Oils with components such as citral, citronellal, and oils that are high in monoterpenes seem to be more greatly affected by heat exposure than others.
Apparently, essential oils that are extracted using CO2 are more prone to damage from heat than other essential oils, though the reason for that is not yet known. (Source)
Robert Tisserand, considered by many to be the foremost expert on essential oil safety, recommends keeping your essential oils away from heat and in cool areas, ideally in the refrigerator. (Source)
One more thing that can affect essential oil shelf life is time. Of course, if the essential oil is not exposed to oxygen, light, or heat (it's stored unopened in a dark, cool place), then it will be stable longer. However, once you open the bottle, the deterioration begins and progresses with time.
As you expose the essential oil to any of the above assaults, over time, the essential oil will change. If you regularly open your bottle to use the oils, then the effect will occur more quickly.
Do Any Oils Get Better Over Time?
Apparently there are some essential oils that get better with time, Patchouli being one of them.
Others that are said to get better with time include Sandalwood, Rose, possibly Cedarwood, Vetiver, Frankincense (CO2), and Myrrh. See below for more information.
Are Expired Essential Oils Dangerous?
The answer is--maybe!
Essential oils are made up of different components--lighter components and heavier ones.
The lighter components evaporate first, leaving the heavier components behind. Typically, the lighter components are the ones that are gentler on the skin.
So, if you use an essential oil that's been around for a while, your chances to experience irritation are greater and the chances of getting sensitized to the oil increase too.
This post on Emulsifying Essential Oils, talks about ways you can greatly minimize the chances of sensitization.
When essential oils are exposed to light, heat, and oxygen, the components change. So you truly end up with a different oil than what you started out with.
So due to all of these reasons, old essential oils can be dangerous.
Can You Use Expired Essential Oils?
Just because an older essential oil shouldn't be used on your skin, that doesn't mean you need to toss it. Here are a few ideas for how to use them.
- Refresh drains. Drop some oil down your drains to help freshen them. Citrus scents like lemon and orange work great for this!
- Freshen up your vacuum cleaner bag. Put a few drops of lavender or rose essential oils in or on your bag before vacuuming.
- Clean your house. Use peppermint oil in a homemade cleaner like this homemade cleaning paste or homemade window cleaner.
- Repel pests. Place a drop or two of oil on a cotton ball and place it where you have a pest problem. Peppermint, thyme, and spearmint are some oils that work against certain pests.
Essential Oil Components and Shelf Life
Note that Tisserand recommends storing your essential oils in the refrigerator. The following time frames should be halved if they are stored in an area with exposure to heat or light.
Essential Oil Components
The shelf life of essential oils depends on the components. The chemical components of essential oil include sesquiterpenes, sesquiterpenols, monoterpenes, monoterpenols, ethers, esters, aldehydes, oxides, ketones, and phenols.
Each of these has a different shelf life and the amount of each in any essential oils has a huge part in determining what the shelf life of that essential oil is.
Shelf Life of Essential Oils Guide
Here are some general guidelines for how long your essential oils will last.
1-2 Years: Oils with a higher quantity of monoterpenes have the shortest shelf life.
Citrus oils have the highest amount of monoterpenes--about 90%.
Examples: Citrus, Neroli, Frankincense, Lemongrass, Tea Tree, Spruce and Pine, Angelica Root, Cypress
2-3 Years: Most essential oils aside from those with high monoterpenes fall into this category. Those essential oils that have a higher quantity of phenols may last up to 3 years.
Examples of oils high in phenols and the amount present are:
- Anise (90%)
- Clove (80%)
- Basil (70%)
- Oregano (70%)
4-8 Years: Oils that contain a high percentage of sesquiterpenes and/or sesquiterpenols have the longest shelf life out of all the oils.
Examples: Sandalwood, Vetiver, and Patchouli
Though it's thought that these oils get better over time, that typically means that their aroma improves. Actually, their therapeutic components might decrease so if you're using the oils therapeutically, you might want to use them within 4 years.
Though not as much as the above oils, Copaiba Balsam, Myrrh and Gurjun Balsam have a significant amount of sesquiterpenes and/or sesquiterpenols. Also, some Cedarwood distillations have a higher amount of sesquiterpenes.
How to Make Your Essential Oils Last Longer
- Store your oils away from heat and light and keep the bottles closed tightly. Better yet, store them in the refrigerator.
- If you use up a lot of an oil, store the remainder in a smaller bottle to reduce the air exposure inside the bottle, otherwise known as "head space."
How Can You Tell if Essential Oils Have Gone Bad?
Here are a few things that might indicate that your oils have expired.
- The scent has changed
- The oil has become thick
- The essential oil is cloudy
- The color of the oil has changed
Handy Tips & Resources
Label Your Oils
When you buy an oil, write the date of purchase on the bottle or cap label. Of course, you'll want to make sure that the company you buy from has fresh stock.
Get “The” Essential Oil Safety Book
I referenced this book several times on my site, and there's a reason for that. It's really really good.
Robert Tisserand's book on Essential Oil Safety is considered by many to be "the" book on EO Safety. In addition to basic safety information, he has fabulous information about essential oil shelf life as well.
It's a fantastic reference tool for anyone wanting to know more about essential oils in general, and essential oil safety in specific.
Buy Quality Oils
Of course it makes sense to buy only quality oils if you are concerned about safety and shelf life. I personally buy my oils from several places.
Years ago, I started looking for a quality essential oils company. After hours and hours of work, I ended up choosing the essential oils company mentioned in this post and have added Neal’s Yard Remedies to the mix. I initially chose them for their skincare and personal care, but they have an great line of oils that are produced sustainably.
Essential Oils are pretty stable, but you need to take care of how you use and store them.
Use common sense. If an oil smells bad or looks bad, don't use it.
Better safe than sorry.
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