Bergamot is an extremely interesting plant. You've almost certainly seen bergamot essential oil before, but did you know where it comes from, or what it's used for?
What is Bergamot?
Bergamot is used as both a flavor and a scent. It has a spicy taste and a soothing, slightly bitter scent, and is very distinctive once you know what to look for.
Bergamot actually comes from a citrus called the bergamot orange. Despite the name, it's not actually orange; rather, it's green like a lime when it's ripe, with hints of yellow like a lemon. Research into the genetics of the plant shows that it's actually a cultivar combination of lemon and bitter orange, itself a widely used natural medicine.
Bergamot oil is not to be confused with the herbal bergamot. Wild bergamot, the herb, is actually two different, related plants in the mint family. They produce beautiful flowers, and their herbs smell very similar to the citrus bergamot, which is where they got their name. This kind of bergamot is used as a tea and herbal medicine.
As a flower, the herbal bergamot is known by a more common name: bee balm. It comes in a variety of different colors and is a greatly beneficial plant for your local insect population, so it's always a great plant to grow in the spring and summer.
Interestingly, Earl Grey tea gets its distinctive flavor from the citrus bergamot, specifically dried rind from the plant. The tea created from herbal bergamot is different. Perhaps we can dig into it more another time, but for now, we're mostly concerned with the citrus bergamot, because the bitter orange-lime fruit is what is used to make bergamot essential oil.
Almost all cultivation of citrus bergamot is found in the Calabria region of Italy. Some production, in limited quantities, is found in south America in Argentina and Brazil, and in Africa in areas like Morocco and the Ivory Coast.
As a fruit, by the way, citrus bergamot is less sour than a lemon but more bitter than a grapefruit. It's no wonder that it's frequently used as an herbal remedy, while not commonly used as a beverage or food additive; the bitterness is a bit too much for straight consumption. It is, however, used in a variety of marmalade popular in Turkey, and in Mauritius, it's consumed as a juice as a local delicacy.
All of that is well and good, but you're probably here for more practical knowledge, so let's get down to it. What can you use bergamot essential oil for, and what are the uses and skincare benefits?
Beneficial Compounds in Bergamot
Bergamot essential oil is distilled from the fruit, and both the fruit and the oil contain beneficial compounds with a range of different effects.
Here's what you're going to find in any given sample:
- Limonene. This compound is an antioxidant, stimulant, digestive, detoxicant, and appetite suppressant.
- Linalyl Acetate. This has anti-inflammatory properties, is an astringent, can be an analgesic, and is a hypotensor.
- Linalool. This acts as a sedative, as well as an anti-inflammatory and antidepressant.
- Pinene. This works as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, expectorant, and bronchodilator.
- Terpineol. This is a miticidal (mite killer), anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal agent.
- Nerol. This is an antioxidant, sedative, anti-inflammatory, and antidepressant.
- Geraniol. This has antioxidant, antibacterial, antiseptic, and analgesic properties.
- Geraniol Acetate. This has a range of benefits including antifungal, antiseptic, ad antiviral effects. It's also warming. On top of that, it's a stimulant, a diuretic, and possible even an aphrodisiac.
- Myrcene. This works as an anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antibiotic, and sedative.
Of course, none of this is entirely conclusively proven by science. These are observed properties in isolation; they may not have a major impact in the amounts you get through an essential oil infusion. The question is, how can you get these benefits?
Aromatherapy is the act of using an aromatic essential oil to provide yourself with the scent. Inhaling the oil in dilute form can bring some of the chemical benefits into your body, but primarily it will be a psychological benefit. Bergamot on its own and used as part of a scent blend can help ease stress and anxiety, balance your mood, and improve symptoms of depression.
It's not difficult to start aromatherapy, and you have a variety of different options.
First, you can mix up bergamot oil with a carrier oil such as coconut oil and use it as a body lotion. This goes great as a massage oil, particularly if you have a partner to administer the massage. The scent will linger in the oil, but be sure not to use too much. See the warnings below about phototoxicity for more information.
You can add a couple of drops of bergamot oil to existing products you use, such as facial scrubs, shampoo, and body wash. Just be sure not to mix it with an already heavily-scented product, otherwise the scents may interfere with one another.
A common use is to use a bit of the oil in an oil diffuser or vaporizer for creating a scented atmosphere. You can also add some to scented or unscented candles to help diffuse the scent. Again, be careful mixing with existing scents to avoid conflicts. Definitely don't use bergamot oil in a vape or e-cig; inhaling it in such concentrations can damage your lungs.
For an on-the-go use, dab a tiny bit of essential oil on a bandana to wear around your neck or keep in a pocket for readily available scent.
Using bergamot essential oil as an aromatic can also have an effect similar to something like Vick's menthol; that is, as a decongestant. It can turn a stuffy nose into a runny nose, which can be cleared more easily and help prevent post-nasal drip that converts into illness more readily.
Spot Skin Treatments
As mentioned below, bergamot oil can be dangerous in purely concentrated form on the skin. That said, many of the components have antibacterial and antiseptic properties, which can hill off small infections and enhance healing. Mix up bergamot essential oil with a carrier oil and apply in spots to skin blemishes such as acne pimples.
It's best to apply this treatment in the evening and let it rest overnight. The scent may also help you fall asleep, for a restful sleep that helps your body heal and re-energize. By applying over night, this also helps avoid issues with sunlight exposure.
Mix a few drops of essential oil with some coconut oil and let it solidify, or mix it with some water. Soak a cloth in the bergamot water and use it as a poultice for small cuts and scrapes. Use the oil mixture as a salve for small wounds, similar to how you might use Neosporin, or use it as a lotion like you might use Icy-Hot for sore muscles. For wound care, the mixture can help purge nascent disease to help wounds heal faster. For muscle aches, the warming and numbing effects can ease the pain of tense muscles.
Some people find that bergamot is an effective treatment for irritated scalp, and many swear by the ability of the oil to soften hair and tame unwanted curls without the need of a damaging heat treatment.
Applying raw essential oil to the hair or scalp is a bad idea, as it can damage both. Instead, mix a couple of drops of the oil into your favorite organic shampoo, or use it as an additional component for an egg mask.
While we don't normally recommend consuming essential oils, if you find a food-safe bergamot essential oil, you can mix a couple of drops of it into water or tea for a digestive aid. This can soothe some digestive issues and help process what you eat more quickly.
Rather than using the oil, you may consider looking for the fruit itself. You may not want to eat the fruit whole, if you can even find it, but finding dried rind and adding bits of it to a tea blend can get you both the flavor and the chemical benefits without the bitterness, or the potential danger of consuming the oil. Citrus bergamot as an additive to herbal tea blends is fantastic.
The aromatic tea with bergamot can also have many of the same benefits as using bergamot as an aromatherapy ingredient, so the benefits are two in one.
If you want the most distilled and pure form, then oil may be the best for you. Just take care to read the instructions.
Warnings and Considerations
Bergamot has a few issues and concerns you should be aware of before you really get into using it.
First of all, as an essential oil, it's ridiculously potent in its pure form. This kind of oil can cause chemical burns when used directly on skin, and is much, much too potent to use without diluting it. Typically, essential oils are diluted in a carrier oil, such as coconut oil or mineral oil. It is also sometimes mixed with water for aromatherapy, as mentioned above. Never swallow pure essential oils, try to avoid pure oil contact with skin, and be very cautious using it in a vaporized form without proper dilution.
If you've been exposed to pure bergamot essential oil, keep an eye out for symptoms such as redness, hives, a burning sensation, blisters, or general pain in the area. This can be a sign of allergic dermatitis, and if bad enough, might be worth seeing a medical professional to address.
Secondly, essential oil bergamot is frequently adulterated with cheaper, similar oils, such as rosewood and herbal bergamot, which smells similar. This has actually been a large enough problem that the Italian government, through the Experimental Station for Essential Oil and Citrus By-Products (Stazione Sperimentale per le Industrie delle Essenze e dei Derivati dagli Agrumi), performs quality control and certification for pure bergamot oil.
So, whenever you're purchasing bergamot oil, try to look for a certification that it's pure bergamot essential oil. If you're not quite so concerned about the purity of the essential oil – such as when you're using it for its scent, and a slight adulteration won't matter – you can buy bergamot from any source and be just fine.
Bergamot has also been shown to be phototoxic. This means that the oil can cause light to damage skin more readily. This is why bergamot is not used in a concentrated form in skin treatments; it can enhance sunburns and cause greater UV damage in a given area. Be very careful with any area where your skin has been exposed to bergamot essential oil, particularly in its concentrated form.
Finally, you should also be aware that using any essential oil in a diffuser for aromatherapy or perfume can be potentially harmful to animals, small children, and pregnant women. Avoid using bergamot aromatherapy in enclosed spaces with pets or children; try to isolate your aromatherapy from such small animals, or isolate the animals from the aromatherapy.
Making the Best of Bergamot
Bergamot essential oil can have a number of beneficial roles in your life, and the scent is fantastic enough that it's well worth giving a try even if all you get out of it is a pleasant atmosphere.
Have you tried bergamot essential oil before? If so, what have your experiences been? Please, leave your stories in the comments below. We'd love to hear how you've used it in the past, and if you've had any issues with it.