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A Closer Look at the Shelf-Lives of Essential Oils – Keeping Your Oils at Their Very Best

Who knows the EXACT shelf life for each oil?  There is SO much information out there about essential oil shelf life, and truly so many variables, that this is a really difficult-to-answer question “in a nutshell”. Every oil is different, some change significantly over time, some virtually not at all. Some get better (both aromatically and therapeutically) [...]

Who knows the EXACT shelf life for each oil? 

There is SO much information out there about essential oil shelf life, and truly so many variables, that this is a really difficult-to-answer question “in a nutshell”. Every oil is different, some change significantly over time, some virtually not at all. Some get better (both aromatically and therapeutically) and some don’t age so well.

sandalwood essential oil bottle and wood

Sandalwood essential oil has no real ‘shelf-life’. It benefits greatly for ‘sitting on the shelf’ for as long as you can leave it. With an increase in alpha-santalol levels over time, the aroma becomes warmer and the therapeutic potential higher.

Here we are going to review what ‘essential oil aging’ actually is, how it happens, and what you can do about it to preserve (and in some cases improve) the aromatic and therapeutic properties of oils in your collection!

What is a Shelf-Life?

Yes, it may seem silly, but let’s define this. A ‘shelf life’ is the duration an essential oil can be stored in a particular condition and not loose its best aromatic and therapeutic property. Essential oils (and CO2 extracts) are complex chemical mixtures. Some of these chemicals are subject to oxidation or degradation by other means. Sometimes this degradation can be good, resulting in a better smelling, potentially more effective essential oil. Other times these chemical changes result in rancidity of the oil, where the aroma is “off” and therapeutic properties are lost.

What are the forces that are responsible for essential oil aging?

The general forces at work here are: Heat, Light, and Oxygen (or other chemical interactions that could create side reactions). Let’s look at how each of these forces affect the chemicals present in essential oils.

grapefruit essential oil and fruit

Grapefruit essential oil has a shorter shelf life than most other oils, and along with other citrus oils, should be kept in the cold and dark, with the cap tightly on.

For HEAT we need to think about these oils as molecules and compounds in a solution. All of these chemicals in our essential oils are susceptible to reactivity or evaporation. What an increase of temperature will allow these compounds to mingle with each other more freely due to molecular motion or collisions. Heat generally speed’s up changes, good or bad, on a chemical level.

Think of it like this: why do we make tea in boiling water not ice water? The answer lies with the temperature and how this effects mixing and molecular motion. Ice water is not a good environment to extract tea because the molecules are not colliding with one another and therefore cannot react or change.  With temperature in essential oils it’s the same idea. The higher we go the more these constituents will move around and react with one another.

Diagram of heat causing essential oil molecules to move.

An increase in temperature makes molecules move around faster, and more likely to collide and potentially degrade.

Next on the forces involved is LIGHT, and this force is a little bit more straight forward comparatively. This comes down to UV (Ultraviolet) radiation inducing photosensitive reactions (light induced reactivity). This is such a well known process that an entire field of chemistry exists because of it (Photochemistry).  If something goes through this reaction pathway it can be react in a way that could not be achieved thermally. In some ways this is much more unpredictable than temperature reactions, but will take a lot of exposure to direct UV light for any reaction to occur. Storing essential oils in a clear bottle near a window will absolutely cause undesired reactions of our beloved oils.

Finally let’s look at OXYGEN and how it affects essential oils storage. The problem with oxygen is that it is all around us around 21% in our atmosphere and we also have around 1% of water vapor (which can provide oxygen as well). Oxygen is great at starting reactions in our essential oils and these reactions can degrade very important components in a particular oil. When you leave a fruit or an avocado out in the kitchen it is oxygen that adds the brown color and rancid smell that we experience. In many cases this invisible gas that surrounds us is the main culprit in the shelf life of an oil. This oxidation that occurs is also sped up whenever we increase the temperature of our oils.

Let’s go over some general trends of reported ‘shelf lives’.

Now let’s look at some shelf life years by essential oil type (For a refresher on chemical families click here):

Monoterpene Rich Oils: 1-3 years (Citrus oils are closer to the 1 year and most other oils closer to 2-3 years.)

Monoterpenol Rich Oils: 2-4 years (Oils like Tea Tree that are rich with monoterpenes are closer to two years oils like Clove that contain a majority of monoterpenols are closer to 4 years.)

Sesquiterpene Rich Oils: 6-10 years and longer (These oils could be anything like Patchouli, Sandalwood, Ginger, or Vetiver would qualify as oils which age well.)

These are three great ways to get about the shelf life for any oil. What you can do is identify what type of chemical family best describes an oil and use these guidelines to predict a reasonable time line for shelf life.

What is happening chemically?

Let’s hypothetically say that you did not follow any storage recommendations and you left a cold-pressed citrus oil out in a bottle by the window sill.

Cold Pressed Lime Oil Left out by the Window

Exactly what is happening to your oil? A few things are going on here, first the temperature is driving away volatile components of the oil. This is how a majority of the aging will occur in most cases.

Basically, the oil will get closer to it’s boiling point of the chemical compound and begin to become volatile and vaporize until it leaves the solution all together. In our lime oil example here we also have limonene which is a very sensitive to light.

This is going through an oxidation degradation pathway, which basically means it’s degrading limonene % over time exposed. The amount of oxygen that is in this particular bottle can also lead to increased oxidation. More oxygen in your bottle means more collisions with limonene, and therefore an increase chance to go down the degradation pathway.

Ideal Storage Conditions

These are for all oils other than those considered to ‘age well’.

-Low temperature, refrigerated if possible.

-Dark storage. Keeping exposure to light at a minimum is important with many essential oil compounds.

-Keep the cap on. If you purchase a large size of any oil, it can be best if being used frequently to keep some in a smaller bottle which can would be opened and closed for regular use.

-Nitrogen capping: Flushing the bottles with nitrogen is something any company should do for sensitive oils, which Ananda does! Don’t worry if you can’t do this at home, just follow the rest of these guidelines when you receive your oils.

-Keep temperature of oil consistent. Moving oils in and out of a fridge may accelerate  these temperature dependent reactions and should be avoided.)

When essential oils are kept in such conditions, their shelf-life can be significantly extended beyond the standard recommendations. For example, a citrus oil like grapefruit can be kept stable for longer than 1 year if kept in the refrigerator with the cap on. Your best indicator is your nose! Citrus oils, for example, may loose their ‘bright’ aroma as they age. Taking care of your essential oils as above will help them take care of you for the longest time they can!

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