Do Essential Oils Expire? Should You Keep Old Essential Oils or Toss Them?

Do you wonder if essential oils expire or what the shelf life of essential oils is? These are really common and important questions to answer regarding essential oils, 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.

3 essential oils bottles with anise and corks and lavender

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

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.

Pinterest collage for Do Essential Oils Expire post

What Affects the Shelf Life of Essential Oils?

Several things can affect the shelf life of essential oils.

Oxygen

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.

Light

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

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)

Time

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.

How Can 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.

What Essential Oil Components Affect 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.

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.

How Long Does Each Kind of Essential Oil Last?

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:

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 To 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

Helpful Tips and 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.

The BEST 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.

Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals

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 a great line of oils that are produced sustainably.

Conclusion

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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59 Comments

  1. I bought some pine and fir essential oil from a company online, and I could smell the oils through the packing box, and in the individual boxes the oils were packed in. And yes, I smell the volatile oil in the unopened bottles.
    Does this mean the oils are oxidizing? Are they OK to use and will they have a normal shelf life? Or should I return them?

    1. Hello Cheri - this is the answer I got from an EO company that I trust:

      "Even though the bottles are sealed and packed tightly, pressure during transit (especially air travel) can cause some of the aroma to leak out of the bottle. The Essential Oil has not been compromised - just some of the essence has leaked."

      Does that help?

  2. hi, today I found the 100% pure rosemary oil that I bought in 2018. I remember that I only used it twice that same year and never again, it has been stored in my bathroom cabinet all this time and only today I took it out and noticed that its expiring date is 05/20 which is next month. So, my question is, if I start using it again now, how much longer can I use it?

    1. I think this is personal choice. I have used things longer and others I have stopped using. Really depends on how concerned you are about the things I listed in the post.

  3. I have ravensaral almond oil made for me in 8-8-14 for migraines is this safe for me to still use..thank,you

  4. Hello and thank you for all your hard work in researching essential oil companies. Years back I remember reading on your site a pdf file, I believe, which compared the 3 different oil companies and the names of their oils. For example, Young Living's "Thieves" was compared to doTerra's "On Guard" and Rocky Mountain Oils had a comparison I can't remember? Do you still have that comparison sheet that can be dowloaded & copied? Thank you.

    1. Hi there! That chart is on the RMO site--does that work for you? I hope to revisit this topic so stay tuned!

  5. Hi Adrienne, I really enjoyed the piece on safety and shelf life of EO's. Until I can secure Mr. Tisserand's book, you think you can give us a quick "at a glance cheat sheet" list of expiration periods of the most common EO'S? That would really be beneficial to the "new kids on the block" like me...thanks for all you do!??

    1. Hi there - thanks for reading and for the kind words. I will see if I can put something like that together--good suggestion. I had planned to put some charts together like this but the graphic designer I had in mind took on other work so I need to find another one!

          1. I’m a graphic designer (20 years as a professional full time freelancer) that would love to help you out. Please email me if you are interested.