The benefits of essential oils are innumerable, but they come at a steep price tag. Hold on there for a minute! I know you are about to dispute my claim because you only use a few drops of these oils at a time.
Plus, the blends made with essential oils easily last for a few months. So, that works out to no more than a few drops of an essential oil every 2-3 months. Surely, that cannot be termed expensive!
Well, I agree with you 100% on the usage calculation. But here is the deal – even if you are only going to use a few drops of an essential oil at one time, you can’t buy 5 or 10 drops as per your requirement.
The only option is to grab the whole bottle, and at the least that would be 5 ml. In rare cases, you can get your hands on these button-sized bottles that hold about 1-2 ml of essential oils, but this only applies to super expensive oils like that of saffron.
Generally, singles will set you back by anywhere between $10 to $100, depending on the oil you are buying and the quality of the extract. If you opt for a kit, you will still end up paying $25-$75 for it based on the quantity and quality of oils. So, these oils are certainly not cheap.
Even if you start with just 3-4 oils, as you continue your aromatic journey into the world of blending, the figure will go up more than expected.
Another thing to consider is that some oils get used more often and in greater quantities than others. Once again, we are talking about surplus here.
To cut a long story short, if you are into essential oils and blending, you cannot escape the grind of storage. And, if you must do something, you might as well do it right.
So, today we are going to talk about how best to store your essential oils to get the most from them, safety precautions when using essential oils, handling and storing these extracts and much more.
I am Olivia your essential oils buddy and what you have here is the Ultimate Guide to Storing Essential Oils! Let’s start with the first question of the day…
What Happens When You Don’t Store Your Essential Oils As You Should?
If these volatile extracts are not protected from the elements, they can lose up to half of their usable life, and you’d be lucky to get more than 4-6 months from them. But spoilage doesn’t hit suddenly. It is a gradual process, so the degradation starts long before the oils get to the point where they cannot be used at all.
Changes in the intensity: The first signs of improper storage will usually be the loss of the therapeutic value of the oils, most notably the aroma. The unique scent of essential oils is often attributed to the lighter botanical components in the extract. These are very volatile and the first to evaporate. So, the oil will not smell as good or as strong as it once did.
Changes in aromatic notes: In case of some extracts, there won’t be any change in the intensity of the scent but the aroma will go through a discernible transformation. You may also find a noticeable decrease in the quantity of the oils as the volatile compounds continue to evaporate.
Changes in therapeutic properties: In a few weeks, as the oils lose many of their lighter bioactives, the therapeutic value will greatly diminish. For instance, peppermint oil will lose its characteristic and prized cooling effect.
By the time you reach the point of complete degradation, you will only be left with the heavier bioactives of the oil and the new components that have resulted from the oxidation of the original phytochemicals.
These changes are for the worse: To cut a long story short, in terms of chemical composition, it will no longer be the oil that you bought. Unfortunately, this means that the oil may do more harm than good. The degradation of the active components in the oil significantly increases the risk of allergies.
Furthermore, instead of neutralizing oxidative stress, the oxidized oil supplies the free radicals and toxins that cause cellular and DNA damage. Also, when added to a blend, the oxidized oil will cause the other oils (even those that are not spoilt) to degrade rapidly.
The biggest problem is that if you don’t have a lot of experience with essential oils, you may not be able to tell if an oil has gone bad. So, play it safe and store these extracts as they should be.
But, I thought essential oils don’t expire!
I know that’s the claim a lot of companies sell along with their oils, and the argument is that these extracts are all natural, so of course they have indefinite life.
Well, milk is natural and it spoils, as do fruits and veggies. So, being natural certainly does not mean indestructible. Here is an example of how that cookie crumbles:
A lesson in mortality: Pick a fragrant bloom; any kind will do. Keep it out in the open and over a period of a few hours, you will notice the intensity of the fragrance plunging. As the petals wither away or dry out, the scent will be gone almost completely.
As the degradation continues, the once pleasant aroma will have changed into an almost offensive odor. Remember that essential oils are extracted from botanical raw material, which means they are just as susceptible to spoilage as the flowers, leaves and other plant parts that they are distilled from.
Essential oils spoil differently from carrier oils: While fixed oils will have an unmistakable rancid odor, which will signal that they have gone off, the aromatic changes may be more subtle in essential oils, based on the oil in question.
This simply means that it can be hard to figure out when a blend that contains both carrier and essential oils has gone bad because the rancid smell of the fixed oils will usually be masked by the aroma of the essential oils.
Also, unless you’ve introduced moisture into the bottle of essential oil, there is no chance of mold development but the same cannot be said about carrier oils, particularly macerated oils. So, if you are making a blend, use labels to jot down the expiry date of the mixture.
Predict when your oils and blends will expire: Usually, it’s safest to go with the earliest expiration date from your list of oils. For instance, if you have used a carrier oil which only has about 3 months on it with an essential oil that keeps good for 2 or more years, the expiration date of your blend would be 3 months and not 2 years.
Similarly, if you are using 2 essential oils the earliest expiry date of the two will apply for the blend. In fact, I usually cut that short by 1-2 months to play it safe. So, if I am theoretically going to get 6 months from a blend, I stop using it around the 5-month mark, just to adjust for non-optimal storage conditions.
Now that we know that essential oils do spoil and that they have an expiry date, let us talk about how you can stop time for these precious extracts, at least for a while.
Watch Out For The 5 Factors That Will Spoil Your Essential Oils!
The thing with essential oils is that they are not inert or non-reactive substances. On the contrary, the concentrated phytochemicals in these oils are highly unstable, which means that when they are exposed to environmental factors, they react and they react fast. Take a look at how…
Oxygen: If there ever was a double edged sword, oxygen sure is it! Yes, it’s needed to sustain life and it also causes all the damage that makes life come to an end, think wrinkles and age related health problems.
To get a gist of how much damage O2 can do, consider an iron crow bar left in the open. The red rust that will eventually cover the surface and in time eat away the metal to the point of breaking the strong crowbar is attributed to oxidation, or the reaction of oxygen with iron.
In your body, it is responsible for the free radicals that wreak havoc. And, that is exactly what it does to your oils as well. It literally changes the chemistry of the oil, turning the loyal companion that essential oils are supposed to be into vicious beasts that are practically toxic.
Unfortunately, every time you open the bottle of your essential oil, a fresh supply of O2 finds its way into the empty space in the container. Since the oil is not going anywhere, it’s like introducing a predator into a pen of a prey that basically has nowhere to run.
If you think I am exaggerating the damage-causing potential of O2 and you only have cause for concern if you leave the essential oil bottle open overnight, you could not be more wrong.
Let me take the example of lemon essential oil. Keep the bottle of this oil open for just 3 minutes a day and by the end of the year, the major constituent of the oil (monoterpene, limonene is one of it) goes down from 98% to a measly 30%. So, you end up with a totally different oil than what you started with.
Heat: To explain how heat can expedite the degradation process, I am going to take you back to example of lemon essential oil. The deterioration is significant when the bottle is opened every month, and it’s faster when the oil is stored at 77 degrees F.
In contrast, there is barely any degradation if the oil is stored at 40 degrees F and the bottle is only opened 1-2 times over a 12-month period. As you can see, oxygen is undoubtedly the main culprit but heat is its partner in crime.
Also, when subjected to heat, the volatile compounds in the oil tend to evaporate faster. Some people argue that in order for the evaporated compounds to dissipate, you would have to open the bottle. I agree with them. So, those lighter molecules will just be waiting for you to uncork/open the bottle and out they will go.
The result is that you will end up with an oil that is just not as good as it used to be. While all oils react badly when exposed to heat and air, those that are rich citronellal, citral, limonene and monoterpenes in general suffer the most damage when subjected to these environmental factors. Also, oils derived through CO2 extraction methods are more susceptible to heat damage.
Light: In case you are wondering why essential oils are always sold in dark colored glass bottles, it’s because light can both cause and speed up the degradation of the bioactives in these oils. Both UV light and visible light (VI) at the blue end of the spectrum can cause significant damage to the delicate chemical balance of essential oils.
For instance, fennel essential oil oxidizes faster when exposed to light. Similarly, it was found that a mere 50 minutes of UV light exposure significantly changes the chemical composition of sweet orange essential oil.
Exposure to light not only reduces the amount of certain components but it also results in the synthesis of as many as 12 new components. Since little is known about these bioactives and their effect on the skin and health in general, there is no way to tell if the degraded oil will be useful or harmful.
Hence, it’s not only important to store these oils away from direct sunlight but from light exposure all together. Because blue light does more damage, it is best to pick amber bottles for these oils.
If you have bought an essential oil stored in a blue bottle, keep it away from light exposure. Typically, citrus oils and blue colored oils (both the Chamomiles and yarrow) are more susceptible to damage from light exposure.
Water: Of course, you are not actually going to pour water into the bottle that holds an essential oil, but moisture can get inadvertently introduced.
For example, if you open the bottle in a damp environment, like in the bathroom or even outdoors, and if the weather is humid, moisture will creep in. Although the tiny micro droplets of water won’t do immediate harm, they can attract mold over time.
That being said, the risk of deterioration due to water is higher with emulsions. For instance, if you are mixing essential oils and carrier oils with a hydrosol and an emulsifying agent, the water is already there in the formulation, which means you have basically created a pathway for pathogens.
Even when strongly antimicrobial essential oils are used in such blends, the mixture will deteriorate in 3-4 months. If you have used a plant butter, the mold growth will be visible on the surface of the salve/balm.
Time: This is the last extrinsic factor on our list and a combination of all of the above. As you continue to use up more of the essential oil, there will be greater space available for oxygen.
Heat will also impact the remaining oil in a greater way given the relatively lesser quantity. Ditto for light and moisture. So yes, overtime, essential oils will go bad and there is nothing you can do to completely stop the degradation, but you sure can slow it down.
Let’s talk about how you can accomplish this…
Ten Tips To Get The Longest Possible Shelf Life From Your Essential Oils!
1. Go environment friendly with your storage
Plastic is a strict “no-no”. You cannot store neat essential oils or any blends that contain these aromatic extracts in plastic containers. The bioactive compounds in these oils are so strong that they will eat right through the material.
But a leaky bottle will the least of your problems. First, your skin will have to deal with toxic contents from the plastic container that are leached away from the surface and make their way into the oil/blend.
2. Metals don’t work
Although stainless steel is generally considered to be an inert material and copper apparatus is used in some distillation plants, I would still tell you to stay away from metals when using or blending essential oils.
Over time, the potent phytochemicals will cause rusting and degradation. These are chemical changes and all those new compounds will get mixed with your oil, and that is not something you want.
3. The glass has to be just right
Yes, there are a lot of cobalt blue glass bottles out there and I prefer the color over the distinctly “medicinal” amber. But my essential oils don’t share my passion for blue. So, go old-world and stick with amber bottles as far as possible.
4. Away from heat and light
All essential oils should be stored in cool and dark places. Keeping them inside a wooden drawer/cabinet or the closet would be a good idea. But, don’t store them in the bathroom cabinet or anywhere near the kitchen counter.
Never store/keep pure essential oils or any blend or product made by using essential oils in direct sunlight, near the window sill or close to the radiator/fireplace.
5. Dealing with the oxygen problem
Always decant oils into smaller glass bottles immediately after purchase. The idea is to limit the amount of oxygen available for the chemical reactions.
So, if you have bought 10 ml of an essential oil, decant into 2 bottles of 5 ml each. This way, while you are using ½ of the oil, the other half is protected from the elements.
6. The right cap
Often essential oils are sold with dropper caps along with the screw lids. These are meant to make your life easy when using the oils; they are not designed for storage.
Although the pipette of the dropper will be made of glass, the rubber bulb on top will react with the components of the oil and turn into a molten, gluey mess. So, use the screw-on lids to protect your oils. In fact, keep the reducers in as well, these limit the amount of empty space available in the bottle.
7. A bit of diligent care goes a long way
You can have the right bottle and the right cap but they won’t help much if you don’t cap the bottle as tightly as you should. Also, the right container will be of little use if you leave the bottle open for too long.
So, work with only one oil at a time. Remove as much as you need and quickly replace the cap back on the bottle.
8. To refrigerate or not is the question
Storing your essential oils in the refrigerator is definitely a good idea as it can add several months to the usable life of these extracts.
Keep the bottles in a sealed or airtight box or you may end up with leftovers that smell of rose or sandalwood. If we are just talking about 2-3 oils here, go ahead and use a zipper bag to contain the strong aromas.
While refrigeration is certainly useful, freezing the oils does not help at all to increase their lifespan. A lot of people have a dedicated refrigerator for their oils, which works exceptionally well because more space means you can store not only the essential oils but also the fixed oils and the blends in the refrigerator. This adds at least 3-6 months to their life.
9. Give those oils the time to cool down
If your oils have been delivered on a particularly hot day or you just forgot a bottle in your purse which was left in your car or have exposed the oil to heat in any way, let the volatile components cool down and condense. Put the bottle in the refrigerator and let it be for 5-8 hours, and most of the bioactive compounds will go right back to being in their liquid state.
10. The right way to work with thick oils
Storing the oil in the refrigerator increases the shelf life of essential oils but it also makes some oils thicker and more viscous. For instance, pure and undiluted rose otto will turn solid when refrigerated. Other oils like patchouli, sandalwood and vetiver will become almost syrupy thick. Some may even crystallize.
Allow these oils to come to room temperature before using them or you may end up adding more than what’s needed. That said, the right way to thaw these oils does not involve exposing them to heat. Instead, take them out of the refrigerator and keep them in a dark place for 12 hours and they will go back to their original viscosity.
When You Have More Essential Oil Bottles Than You Can Hold In One Hand!
If you have just 2-3 essential oil bottles, you won’t have such a problem with storage but even if you have started with that figure, I guarantee that you will end up with several more as you continue to explore and enjoy the benefits of these aromatic extracts. The trouble starts when you get to the point where you have more than 8 bottles.
Storing them in the closet is no longer an option because there is always the risk that you may inadvertently knock one over. Keeping them in different places would mean that you won’t have easy access to them when needed. Worst yet, you may even forget that you own a particular oil. That’s happened to me.
So, you will need to find a storage solution that allows you to keep your oils safely and in one place. You are in luck because there are a multitude of options available.
Essential oil carry bags
They are made of fabric and have little pockets to hold the bottles. These carry bags work well when you have to store 5-7 oils and double up as travel pouches for your oils and blends. Because they are padded, the glass bottles stay intact. You can get them in a variety of prints and colors and are fairly inexpensive but not as durable as some of the other options in this list.
Essential oil cases
In terms of looks, they are not very different from the carry bags, but they may have a soft or hard exterior. Plus, they offer more storage space; we are talking about 10-15 bottles here. These work very well as a starter storage solution because you wouldn’t normally start with more than about a dozen oils. They last longer and offer more protection to the glass bottles than a padded, fabric bag.
Essential oil boxes
These bad boys have been around for long. They are all wood, very durable, have slots to accommodate bottles of different capacities and you can get them in different sizes. If you want to store more than 20 bottles, this is what you should be going for. They are a bit expensive but totally worth the cost because they do last forever. The only problem is that you will need to haul the box every time you need to use the oils and of course you cannot travel with it.
Essential oil drawer organizers
These are affordable and a fantastic way to use available space and bring order to your collection of oils all at once. The organizers can be bought to suit your specific storage needs, which is what I personally love about them. But, you will need to employ a dedicated drawer, one that isn’t easily accessible to the munchkins. That, I suppose, is the only down side.
Essential oil cabinets
This is the essential oil storage solution for the pros; a dedicated space for those precious oils. It has the steepest price tag of all the options but it’s worth every penny if you use your oils often and are a budding master blender who likes to put his/her oils on display. In fact, I’d say this one is second only to a dedicated refrigerator for the oils.
You can store up to 50 oils in these cabinets and they have room and slots for bottles of all sizes. So, you can store fixed oils, empty bottles, droppers and just about all your blending paraphernalia in these cabinets.
If that is not enough, they come with a lock, so paws and tiny hands don’t get to the oils. But, you will need to find a place for it in your home that is cool and dry and away from a source of direct sunlight.
So, now that you know everything about storage, let us talk about how best to handle those oils.
Safe Storage And Handling Of Essential Oils
- Do not keep essential oils on tables or counters made of plastic or other degradable material. Even if a few drops trickle to the table or counter top, there will be significant damage to the material.
- Always, and I cannot stress on this enough, always keep your essential oils away from pets and kids. I’d even say keep them under lock and key to be absolutely sure.
- Do not store your oils in overhead cabinets or shelves. This also applies to essential oil carry cases and boxes. The last thing you want is to accidently drop the bottle or the carry case and end up with a lot of broken bottles and a spill that can be hard to manage.
- Essential oils are highly flammable, so keep them away from open flames and direct sources of high heat. In fact, don’t use these oils near gas furnaces, fireplaces, candles or stove tops.
- If your essential oils have crystallized under refrigeration and you need to use it immediately, warm the bottle a bit by rolling it in your palms for a few minutes. Don’t try any other method of thawing.
- Only use a glass pipette and stirrer to measure and blend essential oils and mixtures that contain essential oils.
- Never use essential oils essential oils on the skin without proper dilution. These extracts are extremely strong and will cause burns and irritation.
- If you spill your essential oil, soak up the oil with an absorbent towel/tissue and wash the area of the spill with soap. But first, air the area before you start cleaning the spill.
- Instead of pouring essential oils right out the bottle, measure them into a spoon (a stainless steel spoon will do in this case) and then add it to the blend. Most of these oils flow easily, which means there is often the risk of using more than the recommended and required amount.
- Use a clean pipette for each oil and sanitize it after every use and before storage.
- If you spill neat essential oil on your skin, quickly apply some carrier oil on the affected area and wipe off with soft tissue. Then, wash the area with soap and warm water.
- Never apply essential oils or essential oil blends, regardless of how diluted they are, in the eyes or directly on the mucous membrane of the nose.
- Sometimes citrus oils can go cloudy. This usually happens when they are nearing their expiration date, but you can still get a few weeks out of them at this point. Let the bottle stand for 24 hours and the sediments will settle to the bottom. Next, use a clean dropper or pipette to transfer the clean (sediment-free) oil on top to another bottle. But, remember to use this one within 2-3 weeks. If the particles don’t settle, you’ll have to toss the bottle.
How To Tell If An Essential Oil Or Blend Has Oxidized?
The change in the aroma of the oil upon oxidation is very gradual and slow to the point that it may escape your notice unless you have a very keen sense of smell. That being said, using the tester bottles at the supermarket as the guide for the fragrance of an oil, will not help since these bottles are exposed to extrinsic factors like air and light all the time.
Only a fresh bottle of the oil can serve as a true mark of what the extract ought to smell like when it’s still good. I have given you some reference points above, which will help you to know where your oil is in terms of its usable life and here are two more.
The aroma of citrus oils is often rendered unpleasant due to oxidation. You can blame the high limonene content of the essential oils of lemon, orange and grapefruit for this effect. The off smell is a good way to know when to stop using the oils for therapeutic benefits.
Oxidation can also thicken an essential oil and bring about a change in color. Usually, they turn darker than what they are supposed to be. In case of some oils, the color change is striking. For example, the blue oils, like the essential oils of chamomile and yarrow, tend to turn brown on oxidation. Similarly, peppermint essential oil can take on a distinct greenish hue.
For How Long Can You Expect Your Essential Oils To Last?
1. The shortest: I have already told you that oils with a higher quantity of terpenes and oxides have the shortest shelf life. That would be all the citrus oils, except bergamot and lemon grass. So, you can count lemon, lime, sweet orange, mandarin, tangerine and palo santo in that list.
Additionally, solvent extracted resin oils like frankincense CO2 will also have a short shelf life. Typically, these essential oils will last for 1-2 years (2 if stored under refrigeration and proper conditions)
2. The moderate: Essential oils rich in phenols have a slighter longer shelf life of 2-3 years. This is a mixed category which includes spines, herbs, woods and more.
The list is made up of bergamot, balsam fir, pepper, camphor, blue yarrow, chamomile, helichrysum, elemi, davana, juniper berry, lemongrass, manuka, Melissa, neroli, sweet marjoram, nutmeg and tea tree.
3. The longer: Most herbs and spices are in this category because these oils are rich in monoterpenols, ketones and esters. You can get a good 3-4 years of usable life from these oils.
This list includes essential oils of basil, cinnamon (bark), cardamom, carrot seed, citronella, clary sage, coriander seed, eucalyptus (globulus, lemon and radiata), ginger, lavender, fennel, jasmine absolute, myrrh, oregano, petitgrain, thyme and star anise.
4. The longest: These oils offer the best value for money because they can easily last for 4-5 years if stored properly. Their longevity is attributed to the high proportion of sesquiterpenols and sesquiterpenes in them.
Unfortunately, the list is not all that long; it includes clove bud, cinnamon (leaf), blue tansy, blue cypress, palma rosa, geranium, rose absolute, sage, spikenard, peppermint, turmeric, ylang ylang and valerian root.
5. The super longest: The oils in this category are as good as wine. They actually get better with age. But as you may have guessed, there aren’t too many of these gems. So, we have a rather short list for this one which only includes patchouli, vetiver and sandalwood. These oils can last for well over 6 years if they are stored under refrigeration.
If you are purchasing premixed or diluted oils, it can be hard to work out the expiration date. A decent starting point to anticipate how long these oils will last is the date of blending to. So, verify this information before purchase.
And the last bit of advice…
That’s all there is to know about storing and using essential oils. But all that information will only apply if the product is fresh to begin with. Bear in mind that the raw material and the distillate derived from it goes through several distributors before it gets to you.
How the oils are handled and stored at each transit point will make a huge difference to the shelf life that you get from them. And, that is why it is crucial to buy from a manufacturer/supplier that you can trust.
If you buy well and you take care of your oils as you should, they will serve you for years and in more ways than one. So, on that note, here is wishing you lots of happy blending days ahead. May all your blends turn out fabulous and super effective!