If you pay attention to food trends, or watch hours of cooking shows, you might get the idea that lemons were extinct – or that they’re so passé that only grandmothers use them.
You’ll see lots of recipes featuring passion fruit and guava, jackfruit and seaweed. But aside from an occasional squeeze of lemon that adds acidity to finish off a dish, the zesty flavor and wonderful scent of lemon is an afterthought at best.
That’s a shame, because lemon isn’t an afterthought to most of us. From lemon-garlic chicken and fish, to lemon meringue pie and lemonade, lemon contributes a delicious and versatile flavor that’s just as popular now as it was in your grandmother’s day.
That’s not even mentioning the other ways that lemon is a part of modern, everyday life: cleaning and laundry products, health and beauty products, deodorizers and insect repellent – and of course, tea with lemon. (While we’re thinking about Grandma, we shouldn’t forget about Lemon Pledge, either.)
There is one product, though, that bridges the gap between trendy and traditional. It’s lemon essential oil, which is one of the two most popular essential oils sold in America. (Lavender is the other.)
Lemon oil smells amazingly invigorating, it provides numerous health and wellness benefits – and not incidentally, it’s the key ingredient in many of those “lemon products” we all use on a daily basis.
Let’s check out the timeless blessings and benefits of lemon essential oil.
Have Lemons Always Been With Us?
Just about. Scientists now believe that citrus trees first grew about eight million years ago in areas of the nations we now know as China, Myanmar and India, and spread throughout Southeast Asia as the climate changed. And citrus trees are known to have appeared in Australia some four million years ago.
The first citrus fruits weren’t lemons, though. Lemons appeared later, as a hybrid of bitter orange and citron. (You’re not alone; we mistakenly believed that citrons were a more recent hybrid, too.) Even so, it appears that lemon cultivation was underway in India by 500 B.C., traders brought the fruit to the Middle East about six hundred years later, and it was transported to Italy shortly after that.
Even though those regions had bountiful crops of lemons, however, that doesn’t mean they were eaten or used in cooking. For nearly a thousand years, the lemon was viewed as solely an ornamental fruit with a fragrant smell. In the late Middle Ages, the fruit arrived in Europe and the Middle East, and its first use in food preparation dates to around that time.
Columbus brought lemon seeds on his trips to the New World, nearly completing the spread of the fruit around the world. By the middle of the 18th century lemon trees were being grown commercially in California, and in Florida by the start of the next century. Their popularity as a cooking and flavoring ingredient grew dramatically from that point on.
About Lemons and Lemon Essential Oil
Lemon is known botanically as “citrus limon,” and there are hundreds of lemon varieties with very different properties. Some are best suited for producing lemon juice, others as sources of lemon oil. (And of course, some simply look and smell beautiful when planted in a garden or yard.)
Lemon essential oil is sourced from the fruit’s peel, and extracting the oil isn’t easy. The fresh lemons must first be picked by hand, since machines damage them. They are then “cold pressed” with a hydraulic press, which rotates the fruit as pressure forces release of oil from the rinds; the steam distillation process used for most essential oil extraction damages citrus fruits.
It takes about 10,000 lemons to produce just a gallon of essential oil. That makes lemon oil one of the more expensive choices – but it’s worth the extra cost, as we’ll learn shortly.
(One important note before we go any further: don’t confuse lemon oil with lemongrass oil. They may smell almost the same, but lemongrass oil is steam-distilled from a type of grass and doesn’t provide all of the same benefits as lemon essential oil.)
The key chemical compounds in lemon essential oil are monoterpenes called limonene and beta-pinene. Terpenes largely determine a plant’s appearance and aroma, but these terpenes aren’t only key contributors to lemon’s unique scent. They’re also known for their energizing and uplifting properties, shared with citrus oils like lime, bergamot and grapefruit. If the citrusy smell or taste of lemon makes you perk up – that’s the reason why.
Lemon essential oil, of course, is a common ingredient in products for the home because of its natural cleansing and purifying properties. We’ve already mentioned the “poster child” of that group, Lemon Pledge, but you’ll find lemon oil in other furniture polishes as well as products like dish soaps, surface cleaners, laundry detergents, air fresheners and bug spray. And that’s not meant to slight lemon-infused beauty and skin care products from skin cleansers, moisturizers and facial serums, to shampoos and conditioners. Oh – and hello, Covid; there are lemon-infused hand sanitizers, too.
What about all of those yummy goodies like lemonade and lemon meringue pie that we listed earlier? Actually, here’s an important disclaimer: they’re not made with lemon essential oil, because the oil is too strong and can be dangerous to ingest. Baking and cooking should instead be done with lemon extract, which is an oil that’s been distilled in alcohol; the extract has a strong lemon taste, but in reality is much weaker than essential oil and safe to consume.
So we’ve covered ways to make your home lemon fresh and your taste buds tingle; those are all wonderful things to do with lemon, but they’re far from the only reasons to use it.
Health Benefits of Lemon Essential Oil
You already know that the lovely scent of lemon is uplifting because of the monoterpenes it contains. There’s much more to discover about lemon essential oil’s health and wellness benefits, though. We’ll start with the fact that this oil doesn’t just temporarily lift your spirits; it can do much more to improve your mood.
Anxiety, Stress and Depression
The research most often cited to highlight lemon oil’s ability to ease stress and depression was actually a 2006 study done with mice. It’s important research, however, because it discovered the mechanisms by which this essential oil interacts with the brain to reduce stress through the stimulation of serotonin and dopamine production. It also found that lemon oil is even more effective at lowering anxiety levels than lavender oil, which is commonly used for that purpose.
Later studies conducted with human subjects confirmed that last fact, as well as lemon oil’s ability to ease stress and improve mood. For example, one showed that lemon essential oil used in aromatherapy was better able to enhance mood than lavender oil, even though the latter is usually viewed as a “relaxant” and lemon is considered a “stimulant odor.” And another found that post-surgery patients who inhaled the scent of lemon oil dramatically lowered their anxiety levels.
Here’s one more related benefit of lemon essential oil: at least one study has shown that the mood elevation it can produce may also help students concentrate and perform better in school.
Infections and Wound Healing
You might not think of using an acidic citrus oil when you have a cut, bruise or skin wound, since your initial reaction would probably be “that will sting!” That’s true – but studies have shown that lemon essential oil has strong antimicrobial properties, able to effectively fight bacteria and fungus infections caused by microbes like E. coli, S. Aureus, and Candida fungi. One animal study, in fact, indicates that the oil shows promise in actually helping wounds heal faster.
The same research review that summarized lemon oil’s power against infections also listed a number of studies showing the oil’s anti-inflammatory and anti-parasitic power. That could be promising news for the treatment of inflammatory diseases like arthritis and asthma.
Skin and Brain Health
Lemon oil is used in a large number of skin care products for very good reasons. It smells good, of course, and its antimicrobial properties can apparently help to fight acne and other skin conditions. However, studies also show that a compound in lemon essential oil, Lem1, has strong antioxiodant properties which can fight the damage done to the skin (and elsewhere in the body) by dangerous free radicals.
The benefits don’t stop there, though. There’s also evidence that the antioxidant properties of lemon oil may help protect the brain against brain disorders and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease.
There’s only preliminary evidence from animal studies, but it appears that the scent of lemon essential oil may help ease pain. Research done with mice has found that the oil seems to work in a part of the brain to create an analgesic effect; another study also done with mice indicates that the aroma of lemon oil may activate the body’s opioid system as well.
Lemon essential oil’s ability to reduce stress and elevate mood might be another reason why the oil may help reduce pain sensations.
How to Use Lemon Essential Oil
The two best methods you can use to administer this essential oil are topically or via aromatherapy.
Topical Use of Lemon Oil
First and most important: never apply undiluted lemon essential oil (or any other type of EO) directly to your skin. It’s so strong that it can cause skin irritation or even burns, and it can cause internal problems if too much of the oil is absorbed through the skin. Dilution with a carrier oil like coconut oil, jojoba oil or olive oil will allow you to use the mixture on your skin without “watering down” its benefits.
Once the oil diluted, put just a little on a small patch of skin to make sure there’s no allergic reaction or sensitivity. If there’s no problem, a few drops of lemon essential oil can cleanse the skin and remove excess sebum, help with wound care, and treat sores and acne scars while preventing breakouts. Some people also combine the oil with water (or rosewater) and apply it with a spray bottle as a skin toner or brightener. And there’s no shortage of commercial health and beauty products containing lemon oil to choose from.
A few cautions for topical use: lemon oil is an astringent, so it has the potential of creating red or peeling skin. For that reason it should be used in moderation, only two or three times a week. A good way to cleanse, exfoliate or treat skin with lemon oil is to make a DIY exfoliant scrub by combining a few drops of the oil with oatmeal and water.
Also, lemon essential oil can also create an increase in photosensitivity, making the skin more sensitive to the sun’s UV light. Minimizing exposure to direct sunlight is important when using lemon oil topically.
Lemon Oil in Aromatherapy
It probably goes without saying that the easiest way to use lemon essential oil in aromatherapy is to put a few drops into a diffuser. Diffusing lemon oil through a home will almost immediately brighten the mood of everyone in it, and inhaling the scent will allow you to enjoy many of the health benefits believed to be associated with the essential oil.
No diffuser? No problem. You can put the oil into the water of your humidifier, or even apply a few drops to a cloth or handkerchief and inhale the scent that way.
Once you’ve enjoyed the aroma a few times, you may want to vary it a bit by creating your own essential oil blend. Some oils, including peppermint, chamomile, sandalwood and eucalyptus match well with lemon oil – or, naturally, you can ask an aromatherapist for suggestions.
Other Ways to Use Lemon Essential Oil
Adding lemon essential oil to your normal cleaning or maintenance regime can leave your the atmosphere in your home smelling clean and bright. A couple of drops on the air filter in your vacuum, several drops soaked into a cotton ball and placed in your refrigerator, cleaning your shelves and countertops with a lemon oil-and-water solution, or polishing your furniture with a solution of lemon essential oil, olive oil and vinegar will leave your house citrus-fresh.
One more suggestion: mix lemon essential oil with carrier oil and witch hazel, and – poof! You have a terrific insect repellent. Of course, you also can buy commercial products containing lemon oil for this or any of the other uses we’ve just mentioned.
And just a reminder – the one way you should not use essential oil is by ingesting it. It’s true that some EO companies promote internal use of their oils, but health care professional warn that whether you’re drinking it, using it in food or adding it to a beverage, this essential oil can cause serious harm and should only be used on the outside, never the inside.
Buying Lemon Essential Oil
Government agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) don’t regulate essential oils, other than to enforce laws prohibiting companies from advertising them with fraudulent claims. For that reason, there’s no assurance of quality when you purchase EOs. Unfortunately, it’s up to you to do your own research.
Here are a few suggestions.
- Look for a product created by a reputable essential oil manufacturer, because those are the companies most likely to sell high-quality oils. While they’re not “approved” by the government, you can get a good sense of their reputation and reliability by checking out their website and the types of mentions and reviews they receive online.
- Check the label. You want 100% pure essential oil with no additives, and the labels should ideally list the Latin name of the plant and the country that the oil is sourced from. Buying organic oil isn’t crucial, but it’s another good sign of quality.
- Check the bottle. High-quality essential oil will be packaged in dark-colored glass bottles to keep sunlight out.
- Avoid cheap essential oils. If the price is much lower than the competition, the quality is probably just as low.
Once you get your lemon essential oil home, store it away from heat and sunlight, ideally in a closed cabinet or pantry. And of course, always make sure it’s out of the reach of children.
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