Citronella Oil Benefits, How to Use and Side Effects - Dr. Axe

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Citronella Oil: Repel Insects, Pain & Stress!


Citronella oil - Dr. Axe

As a concentrated form of antioxidants and phytochemicals taken from the plant’s stems and leaves, citronella oil has been used for centuries in China, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Its uses include helping decrease rashes, inflammation, infections, pain and more.

What is citronella? The oil itself comes from the Asian grass plant known as Cymbopogon nardus. It’s most commonly used as a natural fragrant oil, in insect repellents, as well as in beauty, household and perfume products.

According to scientific research, pure citronella essential oil is known to have amazing antibacterial and antifungal abilities.

With these potent properties, is citronella oil harmful to humans? Not when it’s used properly!

In fact, the most popular use for citronella is as an ingredient in homemade or commercially made bug sprays, since it naturally repels various insects — and insect repellent is just one of citronella’s many possible uses.

What Is Citronella Oil?

According to various studies investigating the effects of these compounds, citronella oil has been shown to have the following health-promoting effects:

  • Naturally repels insects
  • Fights free radical damage
  • Fights bacteria and fungi
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Promotes relaxation
  • Helps control pets’ behavior

Today, there are more than 30 species of Cymbopogon (citronella plants) grown wildly throughout parts of the world and used in Southeast Asian cooking and teas.

There are two primary types of citronella used to create pure citronella oil: the Java type and the Ceylon type. Both originally came from parts of Asia, especially grassy areas of Sri Lanka.

Ceylon citronella is obtained from the Cymbopogon nardus plant and has the following active ingredients:

  • citronellal (27.87 precent)
  • geraniol (22.77 percent)
  • geranial (14.54 percent)
  • citronellol (11.85 percent)
  • neral (11.21 percent)

It has a scent similar to citrus fruits, wood and cinnamon. Geraniol is thought to be the major constituent contributing to various activities, including antimicrobial, anthelmintic, antioxidant, anticonvulsant and wound-healing effects.

The Java type is similar and derived from a related species called Cymbopogon winterianus. Cymbopogon winterianus’ main active ingredients include:

  • geraniol (40.06 percent)
  • citronellal (27.44 percent)
  • citronellol (10.45 percent)

Of the two types, Java is thought to be more powerful, and therefore it’s usually more expensive. It has a darker color and “fresher” scent similar to lemon and lemon essential oil.

Of citronella’s active ingredients, the three that are most researched and valued include citronellol, citronellal and geraniol.

Both types of citronella oil have widespread uses, including stress reduction, antibacterial or antiseptic action, and skin rejuvenation. Citronella essential oil is one of the most common aromatherapy oils and part of what gives many household sprays and candles their signature scent.

Additionally, it can be used as a food additive for flavor and preservation, so you can sometimes find it in foods and beverages.

Are lemongrass and citronella the same?

Lemongrass essential oil can be confused for citronella essential oil and vice versa. A citronella plant, also called a mosquito plant, does resemble its relative, the lemongrass plant. (The lemongrass genus includes more than 50 species of grasses native to tropical Asia and southern India, including Cymbopogon citratus.)

The oils derived from these plants also have similar smells and uses, such as warding off insects, but they are definitely two completely different plants and oils.


What is citronella good for? Here are some of its many benefits and uses:

1. All-Natural Insect Repellent

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers citronella to be a biopesticide. That means it’s a natural “nontoxic mode of action” against potentially harmful insects like mosquitoes.

What insects does citronella oil repel? Is citronella oil effective against mosquitoes?

Citronella has been registered as a gentle, plant-based bug spray ingredient in the U.S. since 1948. It has been shown to repel dangerous Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are capable of spreading dengue fever and the Zika virus.

Because it can ward off mosquitoes, it may also protect against mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria, filariasis, chikungunya virus, yellow fever and dengue.

A 2015 report published in Rural Remote Health states, “The topical application of citronella oil can be employed as an easily-available, affordable and effective alternative mosquito repellent to prevent mosquito-borne diseases in rural areas such as Tikapur, Nepal.”

Research published in the Israel Medical Association Journal also shows that citronella works to help prevent head lice, too. It may also prevent flies and ticks from biting you to some degree.

According to some research, you need to reapply citronella oil about every 30–60 minutes for its bug-deterring effects to last. You can combine several drops with coconut oil and spread it on your body like lotion, or add some to a spray bottle with water and cover your skin, hair and clothes.

Using concentrated oil seems to be more effective against bug bites compared to burning commercial citronella candles, which tend to only be made with limited amounts of actual essential oils.

2. Can Help Manage Inflammation and Pain

Like many citrus essential oils, citronella contains compounds that fight free radical damage and help reverse oxidative stress.

A 2000 review published in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry studied 34 different citrus essential oils and their components for radical-scavenging activities. Researchers found that many citrus volatile components, including the main type found in citronella called geraniol, had high antioxidant capabilities for fighting free radicals that can cause disease and cellular damage.

Due to its antioxidant properties, citronella can be used as a natural pain-relieving treatment. It can help with management of inflammation and painful symptoms like joint aches.

Combine several (two to three) drops with a carrier oil like coconut oil, and massage it into swollen joints, tissue and muscles.

3. Uplifting and Stress-Reducing

Citronella has a citrusy scent that can be both uplifting and relaxing. In fact, research has shown that citronella essential oil seems to activate both parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous activity, which is beneficial for management of anxiety.

Citronella can contribute to natural stress relief when you diffuse it in your home or office to counteract a rough day. When inhaled, it can encourage relaxation, invigoration and pleasant memories, and it may even reduce trouble sleeping and depression.

Some animal studies have even shown that inhalation of citronella can help reduce appetite and potentially body weight, perhaps by reducing stress-related cravings.

4. Can Help Destroy Parasites

Citronella oil is used to expel worms and parasites from the intestines. In vitro research shows that geraniol also has strong anthelmintic activity. This means it effectively expels parasitic worms and other internal parasites by either stunning or killing them without causing any damage to the host.

This is precisely the reason that citronella is used to prevent both internal and external infections and why it can play a central role in a parasite cleanse.

5. Natural Perfume or Room Spray

Because it has a clean, fresh scent similar to lemon or lemongrass, citronella is a common ingredient in soaps, candles, incense, perfumes and cosmetics. You can naturally deodorize your home, dishwasher, refrigerator and laundry machine by diffusing citronella essential oil or running a cycle of your household appliances with a few drops of included.

6. Kitchen Cleaner

Proven to have strong antifungal and antibacterial properties, citronella oil can be used to help clean your kitchen, bathroom or household surfaces without the need for harsh chemicals.

7. Natural Antifungal and Antibacterial Effects

Aside from keeping away bug bites, citronella can work as a natural skin care aid by killing off bacteria and fungus. Being both an antibacterial and antifungal essential oil, citronella can help with many common skin complaints, including athlete’s foot and acne.

Citronella essential oil has also specifically been shown to kill off candida fungus. Candida can contribute to many skin concerns, such as nail infections.

Additionally, studies have found that it it can be used in mouthwashes to kill harmful bacteria in the mouth, and it has a lower cytotoxic effect and higher action compared to some other commercial solutions.

To use citronella oil topically, always dilute it in a 1:1 ration with a carrier oil, such as coconut oil. As an easy-to-make home remedy for acne, try dabbing one drop of pure citronella essential oil mixed with one drop of coconut oil on blemishes three times a day using a sterile cotton swab.

8. Pet Controller

Although it might sound strange, rather than using an electric shock, citronella oil can help get dogs to stop barking. This is why there are anti-barking collars that contain citronella.

According to the ASPCA, research has shown that a citronella collar can be at least as effective for eliminating barking as an electronic collar, and it’s typically viewed more positively by dog owners.

You can also use citronella to keep your dogs off of furniture. As a bonus, when you spray citronella on your furniture or linens, it keeps them free from bacteria, pests and odors.

Add several drops to a spray bottle along with water, shake it up, and spray it throughout your home and on household items.

Is citronella oil poisonous to cats? Cats are known to be more sensitive to citronella than dogs, so it’s not recommended to use it around cats.

9. Natural Shampoo and Conditioner

One of the most popular uses for citronella oil is cleansing and conditioning the hair and scalp. It can help eliminate excess oil and greasiness of hair while adding shine.

Many people find it adds volume to hair and helps detangle knots.

To use citronella oil for hair, add several drops to your shampoo or conditioner, or try making your own homemade recipe using a cleansing oil like coconut oil, which also benefits hair.

How to Use

As explained above, citronella can be used to make a bug spray or room spray. It can also be diffused, burned as a candle or applied topically.

Here are several methods for safely using citronella oil at home:

  • Aromatically: You can diffuse the oil in your home or backyard just like a candle using a diffuser. To make a natural room freshener, put a few drops of oil along with water into a spritzer bottle. You can also inhale the oil directly by sniffing it.
  • Topically: Before applying citronella oil to your skin, it should be diluted with a carrier oil, like coconut or jojoba oil, in a 1:1 ratio. Rub the mixture into your skin, or spray some on your clothes and hair. You can also add a few drops of citronella essential oil to your bath, shampoo, soap, lotion or body wash.

Combine citronella oil with other uplifting essential oils, including:

Instead of using conventional recipes and showering your body in harmful chemicals, try this homemade bug spray recipe that includes citronella oil. In addition to keeping away bugs, it also helps kill bacteria and nourish your skin, and unlike conventional brands, it smells amazing!

You can also try citronella essential oil in these other DIY recipes:

Wondering where to buy citronella oil? It’s not hard to find citronella essential oil in health stores or online. Always look for one that is 100 percent pure, organic and therapeutic-grade that was created with chemical-free CO2 extraction methods.

Risks and Side Effects

Is citronella oil toxic? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that it is generally safe and known to have little or no toxicity when used as a topical product on the skin.

In fact, there have been virtually zero reports of adverse effects of concern since 1948.

Can citronella oil be applied to skin? Yes, but it should always be mixed with a carrier oil like coconut or jojoba oil for external use.

As mentioned above, it is typically not recommended for internal use due to potential side effects and also concerns over quality control. (Poor-quality oil may be contaminated with harmful ingredients.)

Like all commercially sold products that are intended to be applied to human skin, the EPA requires proper precautionary labeling on some insect repellents containing citronella so people know how to safely use it.

It’s considered safe for topical use (not internal) for adults and children over six months of age. Ask your pediatrician before using citronella on children under the age of six months.

It’s a good idea to start out using it in small amounts and performing a skin patch test to make sure you don’t experience any citronella oil side effects, like allergies, redness, swelling or hives.

Citronella essential oil is not recommended for use by pregnant women due to safety concerns.


  • Citronella oil (Cymbopogon nardus or Cymbopogon winterianus) contains many beneficial active compounds, including geraniol, citronellal and citronellol. It has both antibacterial and antifungal properties.
  • Benefits of this citrusy oil include acting as a natural pest repellent, anti-inflammatory pain reliever, stress reducer, parasite destroyer, cleaning aid and natural deodorizer.
  •  It’s mainly used topically so speak with your doctor before using it internally.

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