Photograph courtesy of StillPointAromatics.com
Knowing the shelf life of your essential oils is important for two reasons:
- Skin Safety (old oil = potential skin irritant)
- Maximum Healing Benefit (old oil = no longer considered a therapeutic tool)
I wish more essential oil companies would include shelf life information when selling their products. This would help the buyer know how quickly to use up their product. Because essential oils can be costly, many people covet their aromatics, saving them for special occasions. This can be a waste of oil and an injustice to both the product and the buyer.
Storage is Important to Shelf Life
If you want to keep your oils fresh and vibrant, store them in a dark glass bottle, keep the lid on tight and by all means, keep your oils cool! You’ll also want to keep your bottles full. If you have some that are half-full, put them in smaller bottles. When essential oils are kept beyond their shelf life or are exposed to heat, light and air, they begin to oxidize. Oxidization will usually cause some kind of skin irritation. Some of the signs of oxidization are an acidic smell to the oil (e.g., oxidized orange will smell like a rotten orange), if the oil gets thick or cloudy.
Three Helpful Ways to Know the Shelf Life of an Essential Oil
- Ask your essential oil seller if they can tell you when their essential oils were distilled. They should know the year and season. If not, find a new seller. This is something a reputable and serious essential oil company should know.
- Take a class to learn about the chemistry of the essential oils. Anyone who takes a serious aromatherapy training, like the Aromatic Wisdom Institute’s Aromatherapy Certification Program, will learn the chemistry of the oils. This is a sure way to understand the shelf life of an essential oil.
- Learn about essential oil “notes”. This isn’t the most precise way of determining shelf life, but is very helpful. See below.
Essential Oil “Notes”
Aromatherapists like to use a term we borrowed from perfumers (and musicians). Since essential oils evaporate at different rates, we have assigned “notes” to each oil. Those oils that evaporate quickly are “top notes”, very slowly are “base notes”, and those in-between are “middle notes”. Remember, this isn’t about the odor of an oil, but rather the rate of evaporation of an essential oil. If an essential oil evaporates quickly, it will have a shorter shelf life and be a bigger safety concern.
Top Note: The first smell to arise from a blend and evaporate quickly and have the shortest shelflife. The top note fragrance is usually light, fresh, sharp, penetrating and airy. They add a brightness to your blend and create the first impressions of your blend. The aroma of top note oils reminds me of wind chimes or a flute. Top notes stimulate and clear your mind, uplifting your energy.
Shelflife: 6 – 24 months
Examples: Lemon, Sweet Orange, Bergamot, Grapefruit
Middle Note: Sometimes called the “heart” note, these oils give the blend softness, fullness, and can round off any sharp edges. Middle notes can have both top and base note aromas within them. They are harmonizing for your blends – middle notes provide balance both physically and energetically. They are soothing and harmonizing for the mind and body.
Shelflife: 2-5 years
Examples: German Chamomile, Roman Chamomile, Eucalyptus, Geranium, Helichrysum, Lavender, Lemongrass, Marjoram, Ravintsara, and Rosemary, Tea Tree.
Base Note: These rich, complex oils provide a deep, warm, grounded quality to your blend. They function as “fixatives” and help reduce the evaporation of top notes. Base notes add intensity to a blend and often have an earthy aroma. The aroma rises slowly to your nose, unlike top notes, which penetrate quickly. Base notes are used to relieve stress, anxiety, and insomnia. They are calming and grounding. Most oils derived from woods, resins, and roots are base notes.
Shelflife: With certain exceptions like Ylang Ylang and Rose, most these oils can actually improve with age.
Examples: Frankincense, Patchouli, Sandalwood, Spikenard, Vetiver.