People are often surprised to find that essential oils have a shelf life. They may have been told essential oils never expire to justify a high price tag.
The truth is, essential oils do have a shelf life – regardless of the brand. Because essential oils are volatile, they have the potential to oxidize. Chemically speaking, volatile substances, like essential oils, evaporate. This is why we can smell them, and how they work.
Essential oils are made up of a variety of constituents, or chemical compounds, which collectively make what we call an essential oil. The lighter constituents are most volatile and will evaporate first. The heavier constituents will be the last ones to go.
The lighter constituents are often the ones more gentle for the skin. So when these leave, the risk for that essential oil to cause redness and irritation increases. Sensitization risk is also increased when oxidized essential oils are applied to the skin.
What makes essential oils go bad
According to Essential Oil Safety, “Contaminants or adulteration may increase toxicity,” and “degradation can lead to increased hazards.” Degradation comes about from three main ways: oxygen, heat, and light.
Oxygen that gets into your bottle and reacts with some of the constituents is called oxidation. This oxidation can affect the therapeutic properties of the essential oil, as well as render it more hazardous (source). The biggest hazard is increased risk for sensitization.
Heat causes the more volatile constituents to evaporate more quickly. CO2 extracts are more prone to damage from heat than steam-distilled essential oils (source).
Ultraviolet light promotes free radicals. Amber colored bottles are best at keeping UV light out. Cobalt (blue being the opposite color of brown) bottles do not do a very good job of keeping UV light out, but they allow the light to pass through the glass more readily, and therefore into the product (source).
Essential oils to avoid if oxidized
These are some of the essential oils which should be avoided if oxidized (source). These are also the essential oils to prioritize for refrigerator space, if you have limited room. I compiled this list after flipping through each essential oil profile page in the book Essential Oil Safety.
- Angelica Seed Angelica archangelica
- Anise (Star) Illicium verum
- Bergamot Citrus bergamia, Citrus aurantium
- Camphor (Borneo) Dryobalanops aromatica, Dryobalanops camphora
- Caraway Carum carvi
- Celery leaf, Celery seed Apium graveolens
- Clementine Citrus clementina
- Cypress Cupressus sempervirens
- Dill seed (European) Anethum graveolens
- Elemi Canarium luzonicum, Canarium vulgare
- Fennel (bitter, sweet) Foeniculum vulgare
- Fir (Douglas) Pseudotsuga menziesii
- Fir Needle (Canadian) Abies balsamea
- Fir Needle (Himalayan) Abies spectabilis, Abies webbiana
- Fir Needle (Japanese) Abies sachalinensis
- Fir Needle (Siberian) Abies sibirica
- Fir Needle (Silver) Abies alba
- Fragonia Agonis fragrans
- Frankincense Boswellia frereana, Boswellia papyrifera, Boswellia sacra (Boswellia carteri), Boswellia serrata, Boswellia neglecta, Boswellia rivae
- Gingergrass Cymbopogon martinii var. sofia, Andropogon martinii var. sofia
- Grapefruit Citrus x paradisi
- Juniper Berry Juniperus communis
- Lemon Citrus x limon, Citrus limonum
- Lemon Balm Eucalyptus staigeriana
- Lime Citrus x aurantifolia, Citrus x latifolia
- Mandarin Citrus reticulata, Citrus nobilis
- Orange (bitter) Citrus x aurantium
- Orange (sweet) Citrus sinensis, Citrus aurantium var. sinensis
- Palo Santo Bursera graveolens
- Pepper (black, white) Piper nigrum
- Pine (black) Pinus nigra
- Pine (dwarf) Pinus mugo
- Pine (grey) Pinus divaricata, Pinus banksiana
- Pine (red) Pinus resinosa
- Pine (Scots) Pinus sylvestris
- Pine (white) Pinus strobus
- Sage (blue mountain) Salvia stenophylla
- Spruce (black) Picea mariana, Picea nigra
- Spruce (hemlock) Tsuga canadensis, Pinus canadensis, Picea canadensis
- Spruce (Norway) Picea abies, Picea excelsa
- Spruce (red) Picea rubens
- Spruce (white) Picea glauca, Picea alba, Picea canadensis
- Tangerine Citrus reticulata, Citrus nobilis, Citrus tangerine
- Tea Tree Melaleuca alternifolia
- Thyme (limonene chemotype) Thymus vulgaris, Thymus serphyllum
- Verbena (white) Lippia alba, Lippia gerinata
For a full list, consult Essential Oil Safety.
Shelf life – generally speaking
In general, shelf life is determined by the chemical composition of the essential oils, some of which oxidize or evaporate more quickly than others.
Essential oils which contain a lot of monoterpenes or oxides have the shortest shelf life, of approximately 1-2 years.
Essential oils which contain a lot of phenols may last up to 3 years.
Essential oils which contain ketones, monoterpenols, and/or esters have a shelf life of 4-5 years.
The potentially longest-lasting essential oils contain lots of sesquiterpenes and sesquiterpenols which can last up to 6 years.
Shelf life – essential oils in alphabetical order
Please note that several factors are to be considered when estimating the shelf life, and these are just approximations. Opening the jar frequently, leaving caps off for a length of time, placing in sunlight (or artificial light), keeping in a warm place, and getting water or other things in the essential oil bottles can drastically shorten shelf life.
This is not an exhaustive list. I am listing some of the more popular essential oils as a reference.
Estimated shelf life of some popular essential oils
|Essential oil name and Latin name||Estimated shelf life|
|Basil (sweet) Ocimum basilicum||3 years|
|Bergamot Citrus bergamia||3 years|
|Blue Tansy Tanacetum annuum||3 years|
|Cardamom Elettaria cardamomum||4 years|
|Cedarwood Juniperus virginiana||6+ years|
|Cinnamon Bark Cinnamomum verum, Cinnamomum zeylanicum||4 years|
|Chamomile, German Matricaria recutita||4 years|
|Clary Sage Salvia sclarea||4 years|
|Copaiba Copaifera officinalis, Copaigera langsdorfii||6 years|
|Elemi Canarium luzonicum, Canarium vulgare||3 years|
|Fennel (sweet) Foeniculum vulgare||3 years|
|Frankincense Boswellia frereana, Boswellia papyrifera, Boswellia sacra (Boswellia carteri), Boswellia serrata, Boswellia neglecta, Boswellia rivae
|Geranium Pelargonium roseum x asperum||4 years|
|Ginger Zingiber officinale||6 years|
|Helichrysum Helichrysum italicum, Helichrysum angustifolium, Helichrysum stoechas||4 years|
|Juniper Berry Juniperus communis||3 years|
|Lavender Lavandula angustifolia||4 years|
|Lemon Citrus x limon, Citrus limonum||1 year|
|Lime Citrus x aurantifolia, Citrus x latifolia||2 years|
|Mandarin Citrus reticulata, Citrus nobilis||1 year|
|Melissa Melissa officinalis||3 years|
|Myrrh Commiphora myrrha, Commiphora molmol||6 years|
|Neroli Citrus x aurantium||3 years|
|Orange (sweet) Citrus sinensis, Citrus aurantium var. sinensis||1 year|
|Oregano Origanum onites, Origanum vulgare, Thymbra capitata||3 years|
|Patchouli Pogostemom cablin, Pogostemon patchouly||10+ years|
|Pepper (black) Piper nigrum||6 years|
|Peppermint Mentha x piperita||4 years|
|Rosalina Melaleuca ericifolia||3 years|
|Rose (otto) Rosa damascena||6 years|
|Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis ct camphor||3 years|
|Sandalwood (East Indian) Santalum album||6+ years|
|Spearmint Mentha cardiaca, Mentha crispa, Mentha viridis||4 years|
|Tea Tree Melaleuca alternifolia||2 years|
|Valerian Valeriana officinalis, Valeriana fauriei||5 years|
|Vetiver Vetiveria zizanoides, Andropogon muricatus, Andropogon zizanoides, Chrysopogon zizanoides, Phalaris zizanoides||6+ years|
|Wintergreen Gaultheria fragmentissima, Gaultheria procumbens||6 years|
|Ylang Ylang Cananga odorata||4 years|
How to tell if your essential oils are oxidized
Many companies do not provide a distillation date, which can be used to determine shelf life. If you are unsure when it was distilled, or bottled, you can keep track of when you purchase it. Keep in mind there could be several months or longer between when the essential oil was distilled or bottled, and when you make your purchase. If you are left in the dark, there are two ways to tell if your essential oil has been oxidized: aroma, and adverse reactions.
If you make yourself familiar with the aroma of the essential oil when it is fresh, you will begin to notice it smells “off” once it has oxidized. A change in smell can alert you that it may not be safe for topical applications.
Once oxidized, the potential for the essential oil to cause redness, irritation, itching, etc., increases even when diluted. If this starts happening to you, stop using the essential oil topically. Continuing to use the oxidized essential oil in this way will greatly increase your risk for sensitization.
What to do with oxidized essential oils
Oxidized essential oils are not recommended for use on the skin, but they can be used for cleaning. It is not recommended they are diffused, either, in cause of mucous membrane irritation. Be sure you wear gloves when you use the essential oils in your cleaning recipes. For some recipe ideas, I recommend DIY Non-Toxic Cleaning Recipes (ebook) and DIY Organic Beauty Recipes (ebook), as well as Essential Living: Aromatherapy Recipes for Health & Home (ebook, also available as a paperback).
Making essential oils last longer
If you want your essential oils to last longer, keep them closed tightly when not in use, keep them away from light, and store them in a cool place. The best place for essential oils is in the refrigerator (source).
Do you have a question or comment? Leave a comment on this post, post in the FB group, or e-mail me.
Lea Harris is a Certified Clinical Aromatherapist Scholar's Program graduate from Aromahead Institute. This website, and its sister website, LearningAboutEOs, is home to educational advice and information about using essential oils safely. Lea founded and runs the Using Essential Oils Safely facebook group, with hundreds of new members joining each week. Lea is the author of The TRUTH About Essential Oil Safety, and the creator of Safe Essential Oil Labels and the UEOS App. You can find FREE classes here: Free Essential Oil Classes.
Lea received her herbalist certification through The Herbal Academy of New England. Lea is a contributing writer for Natural Herbal Living magazine, and blogs about herbs and natural living on her website, Nourishing Treasures.
Lea is Professional level member of the Alliance of International Aromatherapists.
Businesses, groups, and individuals can hire Lea to consult on safety, product formulation, and more on her website Lea Harris CCA.