Photo of citrus fruit slices
There's nothing quite like the crisp and uplifting scent of citrus fruits [Image: US Agricultural Research Service - Wikimedia Commons]

A citrus celebration

27 June, 2013

You know that sharp, energising scent.

It’s the hit that you get when you peel and orange or zest a lemon that is immediately uplifting and able to take your mind away to some sunny corner of the world.

In the world of complementary health we are always looking for the next unique, exotic ingredient. That’s led to some amazing discoveries, but it can also cause us to overlook some of the simplest, most effective and most affordable remedies right on our doorsteps.

The smell of citrus is now so common in many commercial products used around the house that we don’t always think of it as therapeutic. And yet the citrus family provides some of the most delightfully refreshing and energising essential oils around. Think of them as a good mood in a bottle.

Great for depression

Although each citrus scent is unique, one thing they all seem to have in common is the ability to lessen anxiety and lift our moods. This makes citrus essential oils a good choice if you are feeling a little depressed.

Another thing they have in common is their usefulness as insect repellents. Try them in a spritz on holiday to keep the mosquitoes at bay or sprinkle a few drops in drawers to keep bugs and moths way from your clothes.

Unlike most essential oils that are extracted using steam distillation, most citrus oils, with the exception of oils like neroli and petitgrain, are extracted by cold pressing the rinds of the fruit.

Although citrus oils are generally inexpensive, it pays to make sure that you are using the best quality oils you can find, and if they are organic so much the better since citrus fruits are heavily sprayed with pesticides and going organic means you won’t risk any pesticide residues on yourself or in yourself.

Finding your favourite

There are many different citrus oils to choose from. Since everyone responds to scent a little differently, and since most citrus oils share similar properties, it’s worth experimenting to find the one that most resonates best with you.

Orange (Citrus sinenis)

Orange oil is expressed from the rind of the fruit. It has a sweet, uplifting scent that is energising and revitalising. Not long ago Brazilian scientists tested the effects of orange oil, tea tree and (as a control substance) water, in stressed out men. The participants spend five minutes inhaling one of three substances then underwent a stressful test while having their vital signs measured. Those who inhaled the orange oil were less anxious throughout the test and for some time afterwards. Used externally orange oil is gently detoxifying and great for supporting the skin’s natural repair process.

Lemon (Citrus limonum)

Lemon oil is also expressed from the rind of the fruit. Its scent is uplifting and fruity and it has a cleansing, toning action and can help purify both skin, when used in toiletries, or the environment, when used in a vapouriser or essential oil burner. Lemon is a generally happy scent – a good choice if you have a hectic day ahead and need an extra dose of mental clarity and positivity. Like most citrus oils lemon also has an antiseptic effect that can be put to good use in cosmetics, and even household cleaners.

Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi)

An energising, crisp and zesty scent, grapefruit essential oil can help lift the emotions and when used in cosmetic products has a toning action on the skin. There is some evidence from animal studies that grapefruit essential oil (along with lemon) can help boost metabolism and can help reduce food cravings. It is also thought to have diuretic, stimulant and cleansing properties that support the kidneys, lymphatic and vascular systems.

Lime (Citrus aurantifolia)

A gently toning and detoxifying oil expressed from the rind of the fruit. Like grapefruit, inhaling lime essential oil has been shown in animal studies to help reduce weight. Lime is reputed to support creativity and clear thinking. It’s refreshing and stimulating, so a good choice when you are feeling exhausted or listless.

Mandarin (Citrus nobilis)

Relaxing, warming and soothing this oil has a calming effect on the nerves and is especially good for fractious children and pregnant women. If you are feeling a bit nauseous mandarin may help calm your stomach down. Used in massage oils it is good to aid lymphatic drainage. You might also see some shops selling tangerine oil. Tangerines are a type of mandarin and you can expect similar effects from this oil.

Neroli (Citrus aurantium amara)

A relaxing floral aroma steam distilled from the flowers of the bitter (Seville) orange tree. Unlike most citrus oils neroli is very costly to produce. It has an uplifting effect on the emotions and is great when you are feeling stressed out. Used externally it good for all types of skin, but particularly mature skin, and for improving the appearance of scars. It also has an antibacterial effect that can make it useful for healing sores and wounds. Read our full profile of neroli here.

Petitgrain (Citrus aurantium var. amara)

Also from the bitter (Seville) orange tree, but this time distilled from the leaves and twigs. It has an uplifting effect making it a good choice for depression and anxiety. Some sources also consider it an aphrodisiac. Used externally it is a good choice if you are prone to oily skin or acne.

Bergamot (Citrus aurantium bergamia)

Bergamot oranges have a very sour fruit but a deeply scented rind. Bergamot is what gives Earl Grey tea its unique scent. It’s a balancing and calming oil with a fruity and uplifting scent. Used externally it is good for cold sores and acne as well as for soothing dry, itchy skin and improving the appearance of scars.


Citrus oils are good all-rounders; they are used widely in perfumes and cosmetics as well as in cooking and room scents and are a staple of many aromatherapists personal blends.

They are also generally safe to use for everyone but remember that most citrus oils are phototoxic, which means they can encourage skin burning when exposed to sun. As a general rule you should not use them immediately before going out into the sunshine.

To get the most from your citrus oils use them in a diffuser or as a room spray – they are great for clearing the air of cigarette smoke or other unpleasant smells. Or you can directly inhale them (try putting a few drops on a hankie and keeping this in a plastic bag for when you are on the go or using a pre-blended remedy which can be applied to pulse points for a quick lift.

Mixed in a suitable base oil you can also apply them topically, for instance as massage oils, or use them as bath oils. See our essential oils blends chart for suggestions on blending. You can also try adding a few drops of a citrus essential oil of your choice to boost the scent of products you are already using such as shampoos and skin creams.

These days we can’t predict what the weather will do, but making use of citrus oils is a way to bring a little summer sunshine into your life no matter where you are.