Citronella Oil

Citronella Oil (Cymbopogon nardus)

By Hwaa Irfan

When we think of scented oils, what comes to mind are flowers, but not so for the essential oil of Citronella. Citronella belongs to a range of grasses from which aromatic oils have been extracted from pre-Christian times, many of which are native to the Indian subcontinent. When a pharaonic tomb dating back 2000 years was opened in the smell was still evident. Extracted and used for thousands of years, the West became familiar with them before the birth of Prophet Issa/Jesus. Both Citronella Cymbopogon nardus, and Lemon Grass Cymbopogon citrates are still popular today. The plant was introduced to Guatemala and Honduras in the early 20th century, where it is still harvested by hand, as cutting stimulates new growth, ready for harvesting within only 3 months!

Cymbopogon nardus, is a vascular plant of the grass family Poaceae, of the plant kingdom, that has tall narrow blades of leaf that grow in clumps.  It can be found in a variety of growing circumstances and climates, including tropical Africa, Burma, the Caribbean, India, Java, Kenya, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and the U.S. They are perennial grasses, which grow easily from seed to the point that Cymbopogon nardus has become quite invasive in rangelands of Uganda, East Africa. As such it has been regarded as a weed by farmers.

Because of the level of safety recognized by the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration, Citronella oil is used as food flavoring. The Council of Europe have positioned the Java variety as having an element of concern safety-wise, and a lower level of concern over the Sri Lankan variety.

Known as Tussocky Guinea Grass in Uganda, Lenabatu in Sri Lanka, the varieties from Java and Sri Lanka are the most favored in aromatherapy, with Java considered to be superior in quality. Both Java and Sri Lanka are the main suppliers globally.

Citronella is the steam distilled oil of the dried leaves/grass. The essential oil is a pale-yellow in color, and has been added to soaps and perfumes as an insect repellent. The Java variety tends to be clear – pale yellow with a characteristic aroma of citronella, and the Sri Lanka variety a pale –yellow to yellowish brown in color with a strong lemon aroma. When buying Citronella essential oil, make sure that the label states that it is 100% pure essential oil in order to avoid the adulterated oil. The essential oil can be adulterated by adding aldehydes and monoterpene alcohols, dipentine and citronella terpenes. Labels stating “Real Essential Oil” are a form adulteration in that only 10% of the essential oil is present!

Chemical Properties

Citronella  essential oil contains over 80 bioactive ingredients, which includes:

  • Citronellol
  • Citronellic acid
  • Citronellyl acetate
  • Geraniol (80+%)
  • Geranyl acetate (Sri Lankan/Ceylon)
  • Methyl isoeugenol (Sri Lankan/Ceylon)
  • Elemol (Java)
  • Sesquiterpene alcohols (Java)
  • Camphene
  • Beta-cubebene
  • Limonene bourbonene
  • L-borneol
  • Nerol

Citronella essential oil has been proven to be a strong antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal agent. In some cases it is even more effective than penicillin, but with no side effects! Citronellol has proven to be effective as an antihistamine, antiseptic, antibacterial, antifungal, preventative against cancer, and effective as a sedative. Citronellic kills intestinal parasites.

Therapeutic Properties

Citronella essential oil has a distinctive uplifting citrus aroma. The therapeutic properties identified so far are:

  • Antibacterial
  • Antidepressant
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antiseptic
  • Antispasmodic
  • Cordial/cardiotonic
  • Deodorant
  • Diaphoretic
  • Diuretic
  • Febrifuge
  • Fungicidal
  • Stimulant
  • Stomachic
  • Tonic (whole body)
  • Vermifuge

For glossary see It All Makes Good Scents

Citronella has been used in Brazilian traditional medicine as an anxiolytic, analgesic, and as an anticonvulsant. The essential oil clears the mind and refreshes any room whilst acting as an insect repellant, antibacterial, and as an antifungal. It softens the skin, and is good for those with oily skin.


The methyl eugenol content in Java and Sri Lankan/Ceylon varieties has proven to be a carcinogen in rats and mice, though whether the effect on humans is the same is unclear. Regardless, the amount of methyl eugenol present in foods like nutmeg, basil, baked goods etc, is much more than the amount present in Citronella/Cymbopogon nardus. However, as a whole body tonic, including as a cardiotonic, those with heart problems should err on the side of caution, because citronella essential oil can speed up the heart rate.


The oil can only be used for external use, and when used it should be diluted by means of Carrier Oils like Sweet Almond Oil. Citronella essential oil can be used for:

  • Colds, flu, infections
  • Deodorant, excessive perspiration, smelly feet
  • Oily skin, black spots, acne, and skin pigmentation, skin cleanser
  • Animal fleas
  • Spasms, rheumatism,
  • Mild depression, insomnia,


  • As a vaporizer/burner to lift the spirits, refresh a room, insect repellent,
  • A head steam bath – head and chest infections
  • Added to a natural cream/lotion (e.g. shea/kariite, cocoa butter) to soften the skin, to reduce excessive perspiration, sweaty feet, as a mosquito repellent
  • Added to bath water – softens the skin, head cold infections, refresher, uplifts the spirit, inflammations
  • Added to water for household cleaning
  • Added to a diffuser as a deodorant
  • Massage – wet skin first, massage in a circular motion, then pat dry.


Burfield, T. “The Adulteration of Essential Oils.”

“Citronella Oil.”

“Lemon Grass.”

“Safety Summary of Citronella Oil as a Flavoring Agent.”

Aromatherapy Series:

It All Makes Good Scents!

Amber Oil

Angelica Root Oil

Anise Oil

Bath Oil

Basil Oil

Bay Oil

Bergamot Oil

Bitter Almond Oil

Bitter Orange Oil

Black Seed Oil

Calendula Oil

Carrier Oils

Camphor Oil

Cedarwood Oil

Cinnamon Oil


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