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Citronella Oil Facts (Definitive Safety Guide)

As the summer ramps up, we're spending more and more time outside, enjoying as much of the seemingly endless days as we possibly can.

And you know what that means: bring on the bug spray.

You may have noticed a key ingredient on some of the "all natural" insect repellents with a wacky name: citronella oil.

What is this stuff? Is it safe? Is it just another chemical in disguise?

We're here to clear up your concerns and uncover the truth. Stick with us and let's dive right in! 

citronella oil facts safety guide

What is Citronella Oil?

Citronella oil is a liquid essence that's distilled from two different types of grasses that grow mainly in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. 

When this liquid essence is distilled, it captures the beneficial properties of the grasses and carries them over, being able to be used by humans to ward off insects and as a cleansing agent.

How Does Citronella Oil Work?

This oil acts like an invisibility blanket to pests. 

Essentially, anyone who smears this stuff on their skin immediately falls off an insect's radar—the pest can no longer smell that person, and no longer targets that person to pester them.

What Are the Benefits and Uses of Oil of Citronella?

Pest Control

This is citronella's claim to fame. It's most commonly found as an active ingredient in insect repellents, and many "green" outlets recommend citronella as an ideal alternative to chemicals like DEET in order to ward off the bugs if you're spending a lot of time outdoors.

Anti-Inflammatory Agent

Did you know that oil of citronella can help with inflamed points in your body? The Cymbopogon species of grasses from which the oil derives feature anti-inflammatory properties which are currently being studied for their pain-relieving abilities in humans.

Fragrant Deodorizer

In other ways, citronella can be used in and outside the home as a sort of after-clean conditioning agent. If applied to an already-clean surface, this oil provides an uplifting aroma that works to neutralize unpleasant scents in the home.

For a more detailed explanation of these benefits (plus a few extras), take a look at the video below!

Which Products Use Citronella Oil?

Given its pest repelling properties, citronella is a VERY popular ingredient in many different products! Check out some of the main ones below.

Tiki Torches

It's not uncommon to find that some of these backyard accessories are loaded with citronella oil. While there are a few varieties which use a chemical composition as fuel for the fire, many tiki torches run on citronella fuel because its tropical scent lends an island feel.

Read Also: What's the best fuel for tiki torches?


Due to its pleasant, citrusy scent, citronella is used in a variety of soaps. It acts as a mild cleansing agent and a strong deodorizer, so it's ideal as a top ingredient in bar bar soaps and body washes.

Bug Spray

Because of oil of citronella's ability to—for all intents and purposes—make a person seem invisible to bugs, it's used as a primary ingredient in many different bug sprays. 

It's popular worldwide for a few different reasons. In the east, where its root grasses are grown, oil of citronella is extremely inexpensive and therefore cheap to incorporate into daily life. In the west, most people are looking to distance themselves from chemicals, preferring "greener" methods instead.

When Should You Consider Using An Citronella Oil-Based Product?

If you're looking at taking a new approach to pest control, check out how oil of citronella affects the following pests.

For Mosquitoes

As we mentioned earlier, anyone who uses citronella seems practically nonexistent to the internal tracking mechanisms of a mosquito

It won't cause harm to the mosquito, but it will prevent the mosquito from landing on your skin and biting you in the first place. This is why people like to use citronella to make mosquito repellent candles to help with outdoor barbecues. 

For an easy-breezy DIY citronella mosquito spray recipe, check out the video below!

For Ants

In laboratory tests, citronella oil was paired with a control barrier and set out for groups of Argentine ants as well as red fire ants. The citronella oil was shown to be effective at killing 50% of the ants after a period of 30 minutes, and 100% of the ants after 24 hours.

Based on this scientific evidence, we'd say it's a pretty safe bet that citronella oil is pretty effective against ants!

For Termites

Citronella oil contains a high amount of a chemical component called geraniol. Geraniol, in and of itself, can repel termites

Keep in mind, though, that professional termite treatment will always be your best bet when you find out that you have these little guys burrowing their way through your wooden structures. However, if you've got a long wait list with your preferred pest control company or you need to wait a few weeks until payday...this is a quick-fix option. 

Can You Grow Your Own Citronella?

Despite the fact that these grasses are native to the far east, you actually can grow them right in your backyard!

If you've got a green thumb and want to try your hand at growing a mosquito-free garden, you can find seeds for the two types of grasses from which citronella oil is derived: Cymbopogon nardus and Cymbopogon winterianus.

Is Oil of Citronella Dangerous To Humans?

So, will using this type of oil be detrimental to your health?

General Side Effects

According the the National Pesticide Information Center, the symptoms of exposure to citronella in adults are as follows:

  • slight irritation to skin
  • mild eye irritation
  • coughing after ingestion
  • throat pain after ingestion

A study conducted by the Bogor Agricultural University on rats that inhaled citronella indicated that weight changes were present, but no internal organ damage occurred. 

Is Citronella Dangerous To Cats?

Cats are very sensitive to certain essential oils because their livers lack certain enzymes which are needed process the organic materials contained therein. 

Citronella oil is one of the milder essential oils out there, so it shouldn't harm your cat. However, we recommend that if you use an oil of citronella product around your cat, you exercise extreme caution and pay close attention to your feline friend at all times so that you can intervene in case any adverse affects pop up.

Cat Products That Use Citronella

Repellents. Because cats are so sensitive to the scent of citronella, many companies have created repellent sprays targeted toward feral cats with oil of citronella as a main ingredient. These sprays won't hurt the cat, but they'll ward off the nuisance animal, in exactly the same fashion as with mosquitoes.

Side Effects

  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Labored breathing
  • Trouble walking
  • Tremors
  • Low body temperature

Is Citronella Dangerous To Dogs?

There is no mention on the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)'s website of oil of citronella, which leads some to believe that it is non-toxic to dogs.

However, its close cousin, lemongrass, IS listed as toxic. These two essential oils are very closely related and even come from the same genus: Cymbopogon. 

Based on this information, we recommend that you proceed with extreme caution when using citronella around your dog.

Side Effects

Unfortunately, this spray doesn't usually work as intended. Dogs tend to become more stressed out by the scent of citronella, developing a kind of Pavlovian response to the aroma.

What we consider to smell pleasant and clean, they consider irritating and overpowering. More often than not, dogs become overwhelmed and anxious by these sprays.

What Does The Government Think About Citronella Oil?

Essential oils don't fall under traditional regulation from the United States Food and Drug Administration, but that doesn't mean that other branches of the government have nothing to say about citronella.

Environmental Protection Agency 

Oil is citronella is listed with the EPA as one of the active ingredients eligible for exemption from the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) under the Minimum Risk Exemption regulations in 40 CFR 152.25(f).

What this means in basic terms is that citronella can be used as an active ingredient in pesticides without actually being registered as a pesticide.

Center for Disease Control

The CDC recommends citronella a number of times in a few different articles listed throughout its website, not just for travelers abroad but for those staying stateside as well.

Most notably,citronella is recommended for use in conjunction with up-to-date vaccinations for those traveling to areas with a high concentration of mosquitoes and a high risk for the Zika virus and dengue fever. 

Citronella Oil Vs Other Stuff

How does citronella compare to its other essential oil competitors?

Citronella Oil vs Lemongrass Oil

These two essential oils are so similar that most people either confuse them with each other, use their names interchangeably, or just think they're one in the same!

citronella oil facts

In fact, these two are, indeed, distilled from separate plants (as we mentioned earlier). Citronella comes from the leaves of two plants: Cymbopogon nardus and Cymbopogon winterianus. 

Lemongrass oil, its cousin, derives from the plants Cymbopogon citratus and Cymbopogon flexuosus.

Click here to learn more about lemongrass oil.

Citronella Oil vs DEET

Because these two liquids accomplish the same feat (making humans and animals essentially invisible to mosquitoes), many people confuse them.

However, DEET is a synthetic, manmade chemical designed by the US Army in the 1940s to protect soldiers in mosquito-heavy areas during their service. 

Citronella oil, on the other hand, is nature's DEET: not developed in a lab, but manages to do the same thing.

Citronella Oil vs Eucalyptus

Though many of the benefits of these two essential oils are the same, the scents are quite a bit different.

Citronella oil has a gentle, almost waxy citrus aroma. Eucalyptus, however, has a musky, earthy smell with a hint of mint.

Final Thoughts on Citronella Oil

If you're looking for an alternative way to beat the pests, citronella oil can really be beneficial to you. 

It's a largely non-toxic, low-risk method to manage your mosquito problem and knock out ants around the home, plus stop the spread of termites! If you have pets in the house, exercise caution. Otherwise, this is an excellent way to pest-proof your home without the use of harsh chemicals.

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Curious about other chemical guides? Check out our other detailed guides to help you deal with your pest problems.

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