What Is Citronella?

Citronella oil is distilled from the stems and leaves of Citronella Grass (Cymbopogon nardus and Cymbopogon winterianus), which grows in warm climates. As an essential oil, it is used as an insect repellent, biopesticide, cooking ingredient, antiseptic and aromatherapy tool.

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The Facts

Citronella Grass or Nardus is a lemon-scented perennial. The plant’s principle chemical components are geraniol, citronellal and citronellol. Oil distilled from this plant can also be used in perfume, biopesticides, disinfectants and culinary purposes. China and Indonesia produce almost half of the world’s supply; the rest comes from Madagascar, South Africa, southern Asian and South America


When used as an insect repellent, citronella oil can take the form of candles, candle cartridges, trees, plants, animal collars and oils. The odor repels mosquitoes and biting flies by inhibiting their ability to locate a host or target. As an aromatherapy therapy product, citronella activates a warming sensation that relieves muscle pain and clarifies the body. It is most often blended with cedarwood, citrus and bergamot. Citronella can also be used as an astringent for oily skin.


While there are many plants that smell like Citronella, including lemongrass, only two types are actually considered Citronella Grass. The two types of Citronella Grass have slight differences. Oil distilled from Cymbopogon Nardus is known as Ceylon citronella oil, while Cymbopogon Winterianus yields Java type citronella oil. Because Cymbopogon Winterianus has a higher percentage of geraniol and citronellal, many consider it to be the superior of the two for distillation purposes.


The oil has to be distilled from Citronella Grass via a complex steam process. It is colorless or yellow and can be purchased in organic, healthcare and hardware stores. Citronella Grass is usually purchased in small pots, however it can grow to be 5 to 6 feet tall. It grows in clumps, and its looks like a gray-green, thick grass.


Watch out for plants, candles and products that are citronella or lemongrass scented. There must be actual citronella oil as an ingredient for any product to be effective as a bug repellent.


While citronella oil is a good insect repellent or astringent, it can be dangerous or irritating when applied directly to the skin. Test a small patch of skin first to make sure there is not a bad reaction. In order to receive the best repellent results, either keep the plants in the area you wish to protect, burn citronella oil candles or apply a diluted version of the oil to your skin (add only a few drops of essential oil for each ounce of baby oil).


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