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The chemical composition of essential oils can change over time. This can affect both their aroma and their therapeutic value. When used topically, this can even affect safety. An oxidized oil is much more likely to be a skin allergen.
If you are using essential oils primarily for their scent, old oils may not be of as much concern. If you are using essential oils for their therapeutic properties, like an expired medication they will may not behave as expected. As many essential oils are expensive, there are a few things you can do to minimize waste:
- Buy in small quantities. There can conflicting information on shelf life. Citrus oils are best if used within 6 months, as they can oxidize fairly quickly. Most other oils last at least 12 months, but properly stored you should be able to use them for 2-3 years. A few base oils such as sandalwood or vetiver may last even longer. Buy just as much as you need for a year or two. If you want the cost savings of buying in larger quantities, consider buying with a friend or two and re-bottling. I buy a lot of different oils in order to test blends for this site, and have come to appreciate buying lesser used oils in samples sizes. The Essential Oil Company and Eden’s Botanicals are two of my favorite companies with sample sizes.
- Purchase from companies that have a high turnover to ensure your oil is fresh when you get it. While I wholly believe in supporting the mom and pop companies, I can tell you from my own prior e-Bay selling experiences (not in essential oils, but another perishable product) that there is so much competition that some stock will sit for months or longer without selling. Someone who sells directly from their own online store may have even less business. Consider checking how many followers they have on social media as one way to gauge their popularity. Or, just contact them and ask when their oils are best by.
- As you use up oils, transfer them into smaller bottles to prevent oxidation (changes as a result of contact with oxygen). This removes the excess air space in the bottle as you use up oils. Be sure to wear gloves and eye protection as you do this as well as protect surfaces from accidental spills.
- Store oils in a cool, dry place in dark colored bottles. I purchased a small wooden box for a few dollars from Michael’s to keep my oil bottles in. Consider storing oils in a fridge to prolong their life–especially citrus oils and carrier oils. Unfortunately, you shouldn’t keep oils in the same fridge as your food as the food can pick up odors from the oils. If you have the space, a small mini-fridge can fit the bill nicely. Or consider this novel mini-fridge (affiliate link, Amazon) made specifically for keeping cosmetics between 46F and 64F. At only 8 x 11 x 6″ you don’t need much space for it.
Disposing of Oils
The company you purchase your oils from should be able to provide you with an MSDS I(now SDS) of any oil you need to dispose of. An MSDS is a Material Safety Data Sheet and is a document that details flammability, health hazards, first aid procedures and disposal information for chemicals. You can look at an example for Clove Bud oil here. Essential oils are flammable and looking at this MSDS we see Clove Bud has a flash point of 93 degrees Celsius. We also learn that one should use protective eyewear and gloves when handling and avoid excessive inhalation of vapors. For disposal, it tells us that small spills can be wiped up with paper rags and tossed into a closed metal waste container. Large spills should be soaked up with a non-flammable absorbent material. This is just one example to illustrate the point that we need to follow special procedures when handling and disposing of oils. For more information on reading an MSDS see this post at Mountain Rose Herbs.
If you do have oils you need to dispose of, larger quantities may need to be treated as hazardous waste. You can contact your local hazardous waste disposal site for instructions on how to dispose of oils in your location.
Essential oils should not be dumped down the drain. A few drops might be fine, but remember that essential oils are very concentrated. We do not want them ending up in the groundwater. Here are a few ideas for disposing of essential oils responsibly:
- Use them for non-therapeutic purposes. For example, those last few drops of lemon oil can be used in homemade glass cleaners.
- If not very old, use them in diffusers for scent purposes.
- Put a bowl of baking soda in a garage or shed, dump your oils into it and let them evaporate. Keep this out of reach of small children or pets.
- Bring it to your local hazardous waste site (the same place you bring old paint and chemicals)
If you have any other ideas as to what to do with old essential oils, please share!
First published December 11, 2014. Last updated April 20, 2018.