Essential Oil Essentials: A Quick Guide To Citrus Oils

I love love love citrus oils! They make me salivate whether it’s lemon, lime, mandarin, orange, or whichever. They’re also some of the best mood-supporting oils and are awesome for many other reasons.

First, some safety considerations with citrus oils:

  • Skin & mucus membrane irritation—Many citrus oils can be irritating or sensitizing when oxidized. Store them in the fridge and don’t use topically once the bottle has been open for a year or longer.  I’ve used pretty much all citrus oils at one point or another in perfume blends with other oils without a problem, though I did burn myself once by using an old bergamot oil in the bath.  And you may be more sensitive…
  • Phototoxic reactions—Also referred to as photosensitization. This may happen when the oil has been used topically and the skin is then sun or otherwise UV-exposed. The result is a nasty burn or possibly even long-term skin discoloration.  After any topical use (always diluted!) of an oil with the potential for phototoxicity, don’t expose the area to UV light for 12 or more hours.  Distilled citrus oils don’t have phototoxic effects but I don’t think they smell as good as cold-pressed oils, which may.

Some great citrus oils & what they do:

OK, let’s get to the good stuff. Citrus oils share some chemistry with each other and have similar uses in general. But each one shines in a particular way.  Aside from mood support, many are anti-viral, antibacterial, lymph-moving and just plain yummy to the nose and brain. I’m listing them from tartest to sweetest (according to my nose…you may disagree!). 

1. Lemon (Citrus limon

This is my favorite citrus. It smells, well, lemony! The scent is a great way to start your day, especially when combined with rosemary. It’s associated with cleansing (know any cleaning products with lemon?).  This cleansing extends to our emotions, and lemon may trigger some emotional purging, so be ready.   Along the cleansing lines, drinking the essential oil in water is not cleansing. Instead, squeeze some fresh lemon into water and zest the peel into it as well. 

  • Promotes focus, better memory, concentration, decisiveness, clarity.
  • Encourages rational thought.
  • Comforting in the face of fear.
  • Helps counter fatigue.
  • May irritate the skin.
  • May be photosensitizing (Tisserand and Young list it as low risk, but if choosing to use topically diluted in a preparation, don’t use where there will be sun exposure).

2. Lime (Citrus aurantifolia)

Another one of my favorites.  The strong scent is tart with a little bit of sweetness and maybe even some floral notes.  I feel like lime shares many of the same properties of lemon…

  • Inexpensive but great smelling.
  • Uplifting, energizing.
  • Cleansing for spirit and mind.
  • Can be used in a pinch for guacamole…go easy, start by dipping the end of a toothpick in the oil and stirring into the guacamole.  You can always add more!
  • As with other citrus oils, may be a skin sensitizer if oxidized (old oil or oil stored at room temperature).
  • Tisserand and Young list lime as being moderately risky for a phototoxic reaction. I tend not to use lime topically. 

3. Grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi)

Anyone who’s sliced a grapefruit in half is familiar with the tangy scent of grapefruit essential oil. Pink grapefruit oil has sweeter notes than white grapefruit oil. 

  • A good one for working with children or with your own inner child.
  • Energizing.
  • It’s lightness and high vibration make it great top note for perfume blending.
  • This is my go-to oil for a cellulite topical blend together with other oils such as cypress.
  • A skin sensitizer if oxidized.
  • Tisserand and Young list it as a possible photosensitizer but low risk. If choosing to use topically diluted in a preparation, don’t use where there will be sun exposure.

4. Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)

This is one of the more chemically-complex citrus oils and its scent is a combination of tangy, sweet, floral, and green.

  • Harmonizing - Helps you feel in synch with life.
  • Helps with sleep.
  • Eases compulsiveness, obsessive thinking, and behaviors.
  • Helps boost self confidence.
  • Soothing for grief - especially loss of loved one.
  • A skin sensitizer if oxidized

5. Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis)

This is one of the most chemically simple citrus oils, though the same species may smell tangier or sweeter depending on the oil, brand, etc. 

  • Focusing.
  • Imparts joy.
  • Boosts self-confidence.
  • Provides support in the face of strong emotions…hysteria, shock, fear.
  • Studies show that simply smelling it may reduce blood pressure.
  • Good for folks who need to “move on” but have a fear of letting go.
  • Revitalizing for those who’ve lived too hard or too fast or who have had a lot of heartbreak.
  • Skin sensitizer when oxidized.
  • Tisserand and Young list it as not photosensitizing due to the lack of certain chemicals such as bergapten. 

6. Mandarin/Tangerine (Citrus reticulata)

Though these are two different essential oils, they are from the same fruit. Tangerine oil comes from fruits harvested later in the year, and mandarin from those harvested earlier. Mandarin oil is sweeter and tangerine is tangier.

  • These are happy, uplifting oils that I love in perfume blends. I tend to use these more than the other citrus oils in topical products.
  • Calming for stress, insomnia, irritability.
  • Mandarin is one of the sweetest citrus essential oils and is popular with children, both calming and uplifting (Keville and Green list these as some of the safest for use with kids).
  • Used for scarring, wrinkles, acne and cellulite.
  • Skin sensitizing if oxidized.
  • Tisserand and Young list them as not phototoxic.


Ways to use citrus oils

Pay attention to those that are more likely to cause phototoxic skin reactions and proceed with caution if you choose to use these topically. 

  • In a body oil, cream, or lotion, 7-8 drops of oil per ounce of carrier.
  • In a spritzer, 10-12 drops per ounce of carrier.
  • On a washcloth in the shower, 2 drops…a great way to get the day started.
  • In a perfume blend to provide “top notes.
  • Blended with sea salt and carried in a small bottle to use as an inhaler, 8 drops per teaspoon coarse salt.
  • A drop inside your pillow case. Or on a cotton ball that you stick inside the pillowcase. This is a good option if you find you’re getting sick of the scent during the night.
  • As a steam for support during respiratory tract infection: Boil water, pour into a bowl. Let cool a bit so you don’t get a steam burn, then add 5 drops oil. Hold face over surface and cover your face and bowl with a towel. Breathe in for 5-10 minutes. Do this a couple times a day.
  • Small amounts in cooking…they can be a great addition to sauces, glazes, baking, ice creams, etc.  Too much will be overwhelming, so go easy…



Keville, K & M Green (2009)  Aromatherapy: A complete guide to the healing art. 2nd Edition.  Crossing Press, Berkeley. 

Tisserand, R & R Young (2014)  Essential Oil Safety, 2nd Edition. Churchill Livingstone, Elsevier.