July 22, 2018

Did you ever ask the question, can essential oils go bad? Almost everything has some type of expiration or “use by” date. Oils are no different. Since EOs can potentially oxidize, they are considered volatile and they do have a shelf life. This might be surprising to some people, but when you think of them chemically, volatile substances, like EOs evaporate. This is the very reason we can even smell them. Essential oils are made up of chemical compounds. The lighter compounds or constituents are more volatile and evaporate first. Heavier constituents will evaporate last. Oils with lighter constituents are usually easier on the skin. When they evaporate, they can cause an increase in redness or irritation. The risk of sensitivity to an oil increases when oils have oxidized and then are applied to the skin. This can lead to more questions like:

  • How long do I have until an oil goes bad?
  • How will I know if an oil goes bad?
  • What do I do with oils if they do go bad?

Let’s look at the answers to these and more.

Shelf-life of Popular EOs

The shelf life can vary, and essential oils can’t go rancid, but they can deteriorate over time if they oxidize. The length of time they are potent varies based on the type of oil. Slowly, they lose aromatic qualities and therapeutic value. Their chemical stability depends on the individual oil’s shelf life. The categories of oils have a general shelf life. For example:

  • Monoterpene Category – Oils like lemon, orange, and tea tree have high amounts of oxides or monoterpenes and have a shorter shelf life of 1-2 years.
  • Phenols Category – Oils such as basil. Oregano and juniper berry contains high amounts of phenols and have a shelf life of about 3 years.
  • Ketone, Ester, Monoterpene Category – Lavender, chamomile and clary sage contain ketones and esters and have a shelf life of 4 to 5 years.
  • Sesquiterpenes and sesquiterpenol Category – Cedarwood, vetiver, sandalwood, wintergreen and patchouli oils contain large amounts of sesquiterpenols and sesquiterpenes and have a shelf life of about 7 years.

3 Key Elements that Affect the Life of Your Essential Oils

The answer to the question can essential oils go badis yes. There are three outside forces that can change the property of essential oils. They are oxygen, heat and light.

Oxygen can react with some of the constituents of EOs and change the chemical composition. You may not be aware of the changes unless the oil was to be tested again. One study found that after Lemon essential oil had been exposed to air daily for 12 months, the monoterpene content was over 65% gone.  The degradation was minimized by reducing the exposure to air. Exposing oils to air changes its composition so its function is diminished.

Heat, especially extreme heat, can change an essential oil’s chemical structure. Even though there is not any solid proof for this concept yet, makers of EOs are careful to maintain certain temperatures where they store oils.

Lightcan promote the forming of oxygen-free radicals. Since they are highly reactive, they can change the oil. One study used Sweet Orange essential oil to demonstrate that 50 minutes of exposure to UV light would yield dramatic changes. Some of its chemical content was increased and others were decreased. However, beyond that, there were a dozen new chemicals found in the oil after the exposure.

How to Know if Essential Oils go Bad

There can be several signs to let you know if your EOs have gone bad. Here are some things to look for:

  • A change in the odor of an oil compared to when it was first opened can let you know if it has oxidized or gone bad.
  • If there is a change in a reaction when you apply a diluted oil to your skin it may be an indication the oil oxidized. This is especially true if you’ve used the oil before with no reaction. Reactions may include a rash, itching or redness. Stop using the oil immediately.
  • A change in the color of the EO may occur as it ages. Citrus oils are light and very volatile, so they are prone to change from a pale-yellow color to an orange-red.

Storage Tips to Prolong the Life of Your Essential Oils

There are several tips that can help you prolong the life of your essential oils and keep them from going bad prematurely.  Here are a few of them:

  • Don’t leave the lids off your oil bottles to protect them from the air causing oxidation.
  • When you are not using your oils, keep the lids on tightly.
  • Don’t set the bottles of oil in direct sunlight. This avoids light degradation.
  • Keep the oils stored in a cool, dark area away from sources of heat.
  • When you are sure you will not be using oils for an extended period of time, such as when you go on vacation, store them in the fridge.
  • Never freeze your essential oils.

What to do With Expired Essential Oils

If your oils have expired, you do not have to toss them out for good. It’s best for you to not use expired EOs on your hair or skin. It’s also advisable to avoid diffusing oils that have expired. They can still have some good benefits left in them though and so it’s quite alright to use them for cleaning, scrubbing floors and wiping down counters. They may not be as effective, but they are not wasted either.


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