An essential oil bottle next to a white flower on a wooden table

How To Know When Your Essential Oils Have Expired

If you’re going to be using essential oils, and you want to get the most out of them, you need to be sure you’re caring for them properly and only using oils that haven’t expired. 

And because you want your essential oils to have therapeutic value, the best way to ensure that they do is to make sure they’re as fresh as possible. 

Let’s tackle some of the most frequent questions I get asked about the shelf life of essential oils:

 

Do essential oils have an expiration date?

Yes they do. Remember, essential oils are a product of nature. Every natural product has a shelf life. They’re natural, liquid chemicals and their chemistry can get altered under certain conditions. Now, they don’t necessarily “go rancid” in the way that we think of natural foods expiring when they develop mold, but it’s important that you’re aware that they can deteriorate, oxidize and lose their effectiveness over time. 

 

How do I know what the shelf life of my essential oils is?

Let’s begin by defining what shelf life means. In terms of essential oils, the clock starts ticking and the shelf life begins the moment the essential oil is produced - the point of distillation/extraction of volatile organic compounds from the plant material. A reputable essential oil supplier will tell you the month and year of the distillation of the oil it is selling, as well as the expected shelf life of that oil. 

So, for example, if you buy lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) essential oil with a batch (distillation) date of July 2019 and an expected shelf life of 6 years, you can assume the expiration date of that oil is July 2025. I like to keep a log of the essential oils I buy with the distillation date, expected shelf life and expiration date. It helps me keep track of what oils I need to be aware of expiring soon. And, another trick, consider labeling the bottle directly with the expiration date. 

Buying from a supplier (mostly online) that gives you this information is my preferred option and the #1 recommendation for ensuring you have fresh oils. 

 

What if I don’t know the distillation date or expected shelf life of my essential oil?

Many people buy their essential oils in stores, on Amazon or elsewhere where there isn’t a clear indication of the essential oil’s distillation date and expected shelf life. Although it’s not ideal to be without this information, you can make some inferences.  

First, it helps to know that distillers ship their essential oil in bulk to essential oil distributors and suppliers. These companies re-bottle the bulk liquid into the various sized amber glass bottles that are sold on to you. When they fill the small bottles with essential oil, they add a preservation gas that creates a barrier between the essential oil and the oxygen in the bottle to help reduce oxidation and the slow escape of volatile compounds. I’ll explain why that’s important in a minute. 

So, what you can do, knowing this, is to start the clock the moment you unscrew your essential oil bottle. That first release becomes your “distillation/batch” date.  Please note this isn’t an ideal way to work with essential oils. The more accuracy you can have, the safer and more effective your oils will be. If you’re really committed to using essential oils to support you, it’s critical that you find reputable suppliers that will give you the key information you need. You can refer to another blog post I wrote, “How to Buy High Quality Essential Oils” to help identify good suppliers. 

 

Why is it important to know the expiration date of my essential oils?

Essential oils are natural, they’re dynamic and with age they go through a process called oxidization. Oxidization is what can cause skin and respiratory irritation, as well as sensitization. And the oxidization process begins the moment the oil is distilled. 

 

What can change the expected shelf life of an essential oil?   

The first thing to know is that the shelf life of essential oils vary widely and their longevity is determined by a number of factors. Certain components of essential oils are more volatile than others and therefore might have a tendency to evaporate more quickly (citrus essential oils are an example). 

Besides the chemical composition of the oil and distillation techniques, there are several external factors that can hamper the stability of the oil and cause it to degrade. So, the first thing that’s important to do is to store the essential oils properly.

 

HEAT

High temperatures accelerate the process of oxidation and reduce an oil’s shelf life. The ideal temperature to store your essential oils is 36-40° F (2-4° C). A dedicated refrigerator is perfect if you have a lot of oils (you want to avoid using the family refrigerator as it could cross contaminate - you don’t want frankincense leftover lasagna, right?). But you can also store them in a wooden box in a cool place in the house. 

 

LIGHT

You’ll notice that essential oils are always sold in dark colored (brown, green, blue) bottles. This helps protect the oil against UV light. But leaving the oils on a sunny window sill or in another sun-exposed spot can still speed up the oxidation process. So keep your oils in a dark place as much as possible. 

 

AIR

Remember I mentioned the preservation gas that many suppliers use to protect the oils. Well when you open your essential oil bottle, you’re exposing the oil to air. And the more air that gets into the bottle, the more it speeds up the oxidation process. So make sure you keep the bottle cap tightly closed after each use to minimize exposure to oxygen. 

Also, if a small amount of oil remains in a large bottle, transfer it to a smaller bottle to reduce the risk of oxidization.  Try to buy an essential oil quantity based on your usage rate. It won’t do you any good to buy in bulk only to find that half of the oil has degraded and oxidized, making it unusable.


How do I know if an essential oil has expired?

A good indication of degradation is the aroma of the essential oil. I like to do a smell evaluation of the oil when I first get it. In the same place that you put your distillation and shelf life information, add a column which describes the smell of the oil. This way, as you use the oil over time, if you notice it starts to smell differently, you can refer back to your original smell assessment of the oil when you first unscrewed the cap. 

Another way to tell is to evaluate the appearance of the oil. Some essential oils can separate over time and become cloudy as they oxidize, especially citrus oils. So make sure you check the color and clarity of the oil from the beginning and use that as a reference as time goes on. 

 

What can I do with an essential oil that has expired?

If you’re keeping track of your essential oil inventory and you see that an oil has recently expired, you can use it in a cleaning product, for example, in a homemade cleaning spray. This avoids the oil being used on skin or directly inhaled, both of which can cause irritation. 

If the essential oil is well past its expiration date, or you aren’t sure about the expiration date and you’ve had the oil for a long time, it’s best to dispose of the oil. A good motto to follow is “if in doubt, throw it out”. 

 

How can I safely dispose of my expired essential oil?

Because every municipality is different, I suggest you contact your household/business waste management company and ask them how to best dispose of chemical products such as essential oils (and even perfumes!). Some places have designated drop-off locations or offer special pick-ups. 

Please DO NOT pour essential oils down the drain. This is not an environmentally friendly option and not advised. 

 

What can I do with an essential oil that has expired?

If you’re keeping track of your essential oil inventory and you see that an oil has recently expired, you can use it in a cleaning product, for example, in a homemade cleaning spray. This avoids the oil being used on skin or directly inhaled, both of which can cause irritation. 

If the essential oil is well past its expiration date, or you aren’t sure about the expiration date and you’ve had the oil for a long time, it’s best to dispose of the oil. A good motto to follow is “if in doubt, throw it out”. 

 

How can I safely dispose of my expired essential oil?

Because every municipality is different, I suggest you contact your household/business waste management company and ask them how to best dispose of chemical products such as essential oils (and even perfumes!). Some places have designated drop-off locations or offer special pick-ups. 

Please DO NOT pour essential oils down the drain. This is not an environmentally friendly option and not advised. 

 

Can I recycle or repurpose my essential oil bottles?

Yes! Absolutely. You can either recycle your empty glass bottles in the glass recycling bin, or even better, you can repurpose the bottle. I like to put my self-made blends in these bottles or sometimes turn them into a cute little vase for flowers I’ve found on hikes. 

 

In the end, remember to try to buy only what you need. Take notice of what oils you’re using most often and consider only buying larger quantities of those oils. My motto “less is more” always applies in aromatherapy and that includes using smaller quantities to keep things fresh and therapeutically effective. 

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