It may or may not surprise you to know that your essential oils do expire. Essential oils are volatile in nature; air, heat and light are not their friends, and can affect their shelf life. This shelf life varies greatly not only from one oil to the next, but is also influenced by the handling and storage conditions of the distiller, as well as by the way you store them once you receive them. Let’s look very briefly about how to properly store them, in order to get your oils to last as long as they can.
Increase Shelf Life
Essential oils are best stored in dark bottles: amber, cobalt or green. Unless stored in a very dark space, I do not recommend clear bottles. You always want to make sure that your caps are twisted tightly. Lastly is the temperature in which to store your oils. Almost all oils will fair better in the refrigerator with the exception of sesquiterpene rich oils. These oils include: Patchouli Pogostemon cablin, Vetiver Vetiveria zizanioides, and Sandalwood (all varieties). These oils “can” go in the fridge, but will thicken and make pouring more challenging when you want to use them (never heat your oils). These oils tend to get better with age, rather than degrade.
A small mini fridge dedicated to your essential oils and carrier oils is ideal. If this option is not available to you, try to make a space in the main refrigerator in your home, and store them inside a wooden or plastic box.
Average Shelf Life
Essential oils have what are called functional families or functional groups. I will group them together in this way for ease of explanation to cover their shelf life. This information is important to know. I recommend writing a date on your bottles/labels when you open them, or keeping some sort of a manual or online log. Your nose will also be of great assistance in determining if your oils are no longer “fresh” and have gone off. Color changes, cloudiness, crustiness inside the cap and moisture are also signs that your oils have gone off.
(lists below are not all-inclusive)
Monoterpenes-All monoterpene rich oils have an average shelf life of 1-2 years if stored properly. Of the monoterpenes, citrus and conifer oils are at the greatest risk of going off quickly. Examples of monoterpene rich oils are:
Monoterpenols have a longer shelf life compared to monoterpenes of approximately 2-3 years when stored properly. Oils rich in monoterpenols include:
Sesquiterpenols are the only functional family of oils that can improve with age. The shelf life of these oils range anywhere from 6-8 years (likely longer). They include:
Aldehydes need special attention. These oils have a shelf life of approximately 2-4 years BUT become extreme skin irritants once oxidized. These oils include:
Ketone rich oils have a shelf life of approximately 2-4 years, and although they contain therapeutic properties, “some” ketones such as thujone and pulegone are toxic and should not be used by enthusiasts (ex Pennyroyal Mentha Pulegium and Wormwood Artemisia Absinthium). Ketones used in common aromatherapy include:
Phenol rich oils have a high risk of skin irritation when fresh, not even considering oxidation. Their shelf life is approximately 2-4 years. Phenol rich oils include:
Ethers shelf life is approximately 3-5 years, and some can be skin irritants. These include:
Esters shelf life is similar to that of ethers of 3-5 years. These include:
Oxide rich oils have a shelf life or approximately 3-4 years. These include:
As covered in the book, The Chemistry of Aromatherapeutic Oils, certain essential oil constituents such as monoterpenes and monoterpenoid aldehydes, combine with oxygen in the air and can form resins (polyterpenes), and others will simply oxidize. Positioning of double bonds have the potential to change, open chains can close and form rings. Essentially the entire composition of the functional group can change. Such is the case with primary alcohols, which oxidize to form aldehydes (1).
Some say to diffuse oxidized essential oils into the air or clean with them, I do not agree due to the risk of lung/respiratory irritation.
I asked aromatherapy expert Mark Webb what his take is on using oxidized oils, this is what he said:
“The risks of using oxidized essential oils are very real, and depending upon the degree of oxidation the risk increases dramatically. If an essential oil shows physical signs of oxidation ie aroma or color change do not continue to use but dispose of responsibly. Please don’t add oxidized essential oils to cleaning products, air fresheners and the like as you are only making matters worse. Either burn or bury the liquid” -Mark Webb
Now For The Fun Stuff!
Unique Ways To Use Your Oils That Are “Near” Expiration
It is important to note that the recommendations below are not for use with oxidized oils, I agree they should not be used but disposed of properly (I prefer to burn mine). The following are ideas that you may have never thought of for oils that are nearing their expiration, and are not yet showing sign of oxidation.
Goo Gone Replacement
Specific oils such as Lemon citrus x Limon and Eucalyptus eucalyptus globulus, radiata, or Smitthi are great at removing the sticky residue from old stickers, tape, and essential oil bottles you wish to reuse. Use caution on wood as the oils will remove the varnish as well.
*Use gloves so that you do not irritate your skin and make sure you have proper ventilation.
Scent Letters or Cards
In this day in age of technology, a thoughtful homemade letter or postcard is always a welcome surprise to find in the mailbox. I would choose a floral oil like Fragonia Taxandria fragrans, Lavender Lavandula angustifolia, or a small drop of Rose Otto Rosa x damascena.
Refresh Your Garbage Can
Utilizing essential oils in this way is very effective, and a great alternative to the conventional air fresheners that have the potential to be lung irritants. Rosemary1,8 Cineole Rosmarinus officinalis (any CT) and Peppermint Mentha x piperita are really helpful to combat a smelly trash can.
Clean Your Sink Drain
You need to utilize caution here, as you do not want to use too much oil and risk degrading any of the drainage system or fittings. Here is a mixture that I use once a month to avoid a rancid and/or clogged/slow drain:
Pour 2 cups boiling water down the drain and wait a few minutes.
Then pour in:
2 liters boiling water mixed with 4 tbsp dish detergent and 10 drops of Lemon Citrus x limon , Lime Citrus x aurantifolia, or Orange Sweet Citrus sinesis Essential Oil. Pour down slowly and it will not only clear clogs but will freshen the drain.
**NOTE I do not recommend using baking soda and white vinegar together down a drain. Baking soda is a base while vinegar is an acid, their chemical reaction produces water with a tiny amount of salt in it. The two together does not produce a fat destroying drain cleaner.
Teenagers? Freshen Shoes, Gym Bags and More
Sports Mom? I am and mom’s I feel your pain. The smell coming from the shoes and gym bags can be overwhelming and spread through the house quickly.
Plant Therapy has a blend called “Deodorizing Synergy” that would be great to use here. The synergy contains Palmarosa Cymbopogon martini, Lemon Citrus x limon, Patchouli Pogostemon cablin, Coriander Seed Coriandrum sativum, Grapefruit Pink Citrus x paradisii, Cypress Cupressus sempervirens, Bergamot Citrus bergamia, and Tea Tree Melaleuca alternifolia. You can also use any of these single oils on a cotton ball and insert into shoes or gym bags to freshen them up quick.
Have Kids That Adore Stuffed Animals?
My kids had an affinity for stuffed animals. The amount of dust that accumulates on them and subsequently tiny dust mites can cause allergy symptoms in your little ones. You can combat dust mites with Buddha Wood Eremophila mitchellii (3). Place in a glass spray bottle with Solubol (4:1 Solubol to Buddha Wood) and water. It is important to shake this well as Buddha Wood is a more viscous essential oil. Spray the animals. Once sprayed let them sit out in the fresh air of the outdoors to dry.
Keep Mildew At Bay
Avoid having to use too much elbow grease to your shower and tub. Keep a 4oz glass bottle nearby with Tea Tree Melaleuca Aaternifolia oil and water to spray the surround after you wash to keep mildew at bay. (If not properly diluted and you use only tea tree and water, be sure to use gloves to wipe down to avoid skin irritation).
*Only make 3-4 ounces at a time and be sure to use up within a week without a preservative.
Remember, the best way to determine the state of your oils is to use your nose, and check for cloudiness and color changes, especially with the monoterpene rich oils. If they no longer smell fresh, it is time to dispose of them. As Mark Webb stated, the risks of adverse reactions increase dramatically when using oxidized oils. If you have oils that are nearing their expiration and still look and smell ok, try some of the methods I covered in your home. As you can see, there are many ways to use them that we don’t often think about. Happy experimenting aroma friends!
(1) Bowles, E. J (2003) The Chemistry of Aromatherapeutic Oils (p 66)
(2) (3) Webb, M. (2015) Aromatic Medicine, Integrated Advanced Essential Oil Therapeutics for Common Clinical Conditions (p 83)
Leslie Moldenauer, CHNC, HHP, Certified Aromatherapist, has been studying natural living and holistic wellness for over 10 years. Leslie is a trusted resource that covers essential oil safety and encompasses all that natural living has to offer. She is passionate about providing education and tools to help others make decisions regarding safety above all things when utilizing aromatherapy in the home.