The Sunny Spirit of Citrus Essential Oils

February 16, 2015 Updated: May 17, 2015

Scratch the peel of an orange or lemon and sniff. That’s the scent of citrus essential oils.

Citrus are brightly colored fruit that are grown in areas with abundant sunshine. Distill these plants down to their essential oils, and their sunny disposition shines through. Both calming and invigorating, these scents are used in aromatherapy to ease nervous tension and brighten a dark mood.

How to Use

Citrus oils are more than just pretty scents. They are some of the most useful essential oils available. Just a few drops of lemon or grapefruit oil give cleaning products extra muscle. They disinfect surfaces, purify the air, and leave behind a cheery fragrance.

Essential oils can influence our physiology by smell alone, yet most citrus oils can also be used internally. For safe internal use, buy organic (pesticides concentrate in the rind where oils are sourced), and consult a certified aromatherapist.

Citrus oils are used in soaps and in facial toners and astringents, but sometimes their sunny influence can be too strong. Topical application of some citrus oils can significantly increase photosensitivity, leaving skin vulnerable to sun damage. When applying citrus dilute with a carrier oil, and make sure to keep the area covered when venturing outside.

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Orange tree. (


Humans have cultivated citrus for at least 4,000 years. Many of the fruits we enjoy today are the result of careful breeding or happy accidents. Our ancestors selected hybrids for food, medicine, and scent.

Citrus breeding has created many types of oranges, some sour, some bitter. Better quality essential oil products will identify the botanical variant on the label. But if the bottle just says “orange,” it likely refers to the familiar sweet variety.

Sweet orange encourages appetite, benefits digestion, and lifts the spirits. Its gentle nature is appealing to children, which makes it an excellent remedy for a cranky kid. It can also be effective in sweetening the mood of sour adults.

Orange oil can be added to cleaning products, or dispersed in any area suffering from foul odors.

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Lemon tree. (Shutterstock)


Lots of sour herbs aspire to the virtues of lemon (think lemongrass, lemon verbena, and lemon balm). This pucker inducing fruit has long held a reputation for cleansing and detoxification.

All citrus oils benefit the liver and gallbladder, but lemon’s sour character has the greatest influence on these organs. Lemon oil is an invigorating scent that relieves fatigue and sluggishness, which are often symptoms of a stagnant liver. Lemon also helps sharpen the memory, resolve respiratory problems, fight infection, soothe a migraine, and repel insects.

Lemon oil is antibacterial, antiviral, and antiseptic. It is well suited for cleaning wood furniture, and disinfecting a cutting board. Like other citrus oils, lemon works great at removing grease and stubborn adhesives. But be mindful of the surface you’re cleaning, as citrus oils can warp some plastics and finishes.

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Neroli blossoms. (Shutterstock)


The Neroli orange is named after an Italian princess. Specific mention of Neroli oil primarily refers to the flower, but the same tree is also the source of essential oils in the leaf (used to make petitgrain oil), and the rind (bitter orange).

Citrus peels are abundant in oils which makes them reasonably priced compared with other essential oils. Neroli oil, however, is expensive and almost always sold diluted in a carrier oil, such as jojoba.

Neroli has an intoxicating floral aroma—similar to jasmine, but sweeter and rosier. It lacks the tang of the rind derived oils, but it still retains a sunny citrus character. It is often used in perfume and cosmetics, and is supposedly one of seven secret oils of the closely guarded original Coca-Cola formula.

Neroli flowers are traditionally included in wedding bouquets, serving as both a symbol of purity and a scent to calm a jittery bride. In aromatherapy, Neroli is used to quiet the mind, and is an excellent remedy for anxiety. Relaxing Neroli can relieve a headache, irritable bowel symptoms, insomnia, and other conditions triggered by nervous tension.

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Grapefruit is a relatively recent invention of citrus breeding. Created in Barbados in the 1700s, grapefruit is a combination of the thick skinned pomelo (one of the four original citrus), and the Jamaican sweet orange. The name comes not from the taste, but for the tendency of the fruit to cluster on the tree like a bunch of grapes.

Grapefruit oil is an energizing scent with a refreshing mix of sweet, sour, and bitter notes. Like other citrus oils, grapefruit benefits digestion, relieves anxiety, and cleans the air. Grapefruit is particularly suited for easing the tension and mood swings of hormonal imbalance, such as PMS and menopause.

Grapefruit oil stimulates the lymphatic system, and can help relieve water retention, and cellulite. Be sure not to confuse it with grapefruit seed extract which is a very bitter antiviral and antifungal.

Studies have shown that grapefruit juice contains chemicals that can significantly interfere with the function of more than 85 pharmaceuticals. The essential oil does not contain these problematic compounds, however experts still urge caution since the interaction of citrus oils and drugs has seen little research.

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Tangerines. (Shutterstock)


In general, the sweeter the citrus, the gentler the spirit. This makes tangerine (which may include mandarins, clementines and other small, orange citrus) an ideal remedy for infants, pregnant women, and the elderly.

Tangerine’s sweet nature encourages a healthy appetite, while reducing gas and bloating. Some apply it topically to prevent stretch marks. Tangerine has the same calming character as other citrus, with an affinity for easing grief, anger, and trauma.

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Bergamot tree. (Shutterstock)


The bergamot orange ranges in color from lime green to pale yellow. This favorite of Italian folk medicine is best known as the signature flavor of Earl Grey tea. It has absolutely no relation to the bergamot flower (also known as monarda or bee balm), which has essential oils similar to oregano.

Unlike most citrus, bergamot is grown primarily for its oil rich rind rather than fresh fruit. Bergamot juice is bitter and sour, but the essential oil has a unique aroma, which has made it a mainstay in perfumery for the last few hundred years. Bergamot is one of the ingredients in the original Eau de Cologne.

Bergamot has a clean, green, peppery scent that is both calming and rejuvenating. It is used to lift depression, inspire confidence, and restore hormonal balance.

Bergamot is antibacterial and antiviral. It has been used to treat herpes and shingles, and is often added to bathwater to treat urinary infections and cystitis.

Used topically, bergamot oil has an affinity for skin problems, such as acne, eczema, scar tissue, and vitiligo, but be mindful of sun sensitivity. Bergamot was once used in tanning lotions because it makes skin darken faster. However, due to the high risk of burns this application has since been discouraged. Bergamot contains a chemical called bergaptene, which increases photosensitivity. Some oils are made “bergaptene free” to lessen the risk of sun damage.

Fun Citrus Facts

Lemon, lime, and bergamot all trace their origins to the citron—an ancient, bumpy fruit that features long tentacles in some varieties. Citron are still grown throughout Asia and given as Buddhist offerings because their shape suggests a praying hand.

Citrus fruit are considered to be a type of berry called a hesperidium. The name comes from the ancient Greek tale of Hercules who stole golden apples from the Hesperides, a group of nymphs born to Atlas.

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