Is it Citronella Essential Oil?
Usually, when someone hears the word “citronella”, they think of mosquito repellant. But as it turns out, just because it smells like Citronella does not mean that it is the real thing. I was recently at a local farm store and they had a huge display of plants, bushes, and herbs for folks to buy and put in their garden. But to my surprise, I saw a curly-leafed plant that was actually marked as Citronella.
As a trained Aromatherapist, I knew better…but the average consumer would not. Oftentimes, plants that are sold as Citronella plants are not true Citronella. A curly-leafed plant is actually citronella-scented geraniums. The compound geraniol contributes to the citronella smell and is the primary compound in the curly-leafed plant. But that is not the compound that works as an insect repellant. Just because it smells like Citronella, does not mean it IS Citronella or functions like it. Citronella scented geraniums are ineffective against insects. The difference is in the chemistry of the two plants, of which the human nose cannot detect the subtle difference.
How to identify Citronella
True Citronella is a plant identified as “Cymbopogon Nardus or Cymbopogon Winterianus”. These plants are made up of constituents that DO indeed repel insects. Namely monoterpenes such as alcohol and aldehydes but also include the compounds of citronellol, citronellal, and geraniol.
Real Citronella is a GRASS and is typically grown in Asia. There are two chemotypes. The first is Cymbopogon Nardus and is called the Ceylon Type. The second is Cymbopogon Winterianus and is called the Java Type, most common in Asia. Citronella is a clump-forming perennial grass (has blades) but many people in northern climates grow it as an annual. it is commercially grown most often in Indonesia, Java, Burma, India, and Sri Lanka. It is also used as a spice for food in Indonesia.
A common mistake is to say Citronella is the same as Lemongrass. They are both from the Cymbopogon botanical family but are NOT the same thing. You can tell the difference by looking at the stems, Lemongrass is entirely green stemmed. But Citronella has reddish hues as well. Lemongrass has a lemony smell that has some deterrence for insects, however, it can have a high degree of adulteration with Citral in the essential oil market. Lemongrass also has a higher incidence of allergic reactions in the general population. Citronella has been deemed safe for topical application, but not for ingestion.
Plant vs. Citronella Essential Oil
However, putting the plant in a container at the edge of your deck will do very little to protect your family. In order for the oil to be useful and helpful, it has to be extracted from the plant, either by crushing leaves or distilling them. Rubbing the grass on your skin will provide protection but be sure to test a small area first before using it all over. Applying to your clothes can also help.
In addition to the mosquito-repelling properties, Citronella Essential Oil has wonderful herbal benefits. Like a multitude of other essential oils, Citronella is an anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial. Other herbal benefits include reduction of muscle spasms (anti-spasmodic), muscle tension and help for headaches and migraines, and last but not least, as a fever reducer.
Be sure to read the ingredients on any product (bug spray, candles, wipes, etc) that say it contains Citronella Essential Oil. The botanical name should always be referenced to show its authenticity and to let you know exactly what you are purchasing. Let the buyer beware.