Can you eat citronella?

Citronella is a common ingredient in insect repellents, candles, and diffusers. With its strong scent and flavor, many people wonder if citronella can be eaten. In this article, we’ll explore whether it’s safe to ingest citronella and what potential benefits or risks there may be.

What Is Citronella?

Before we dive into the question of eating citronella, let’s take a closer look at what exactly it is. Citronella is an essential oil that comes from various species of lemongrass plants. The oil has a distinctive lemony fragrance and is commonly used as an insect repellent.

Lemongrass vs. Citronella

You might be wondering: isn’t lemongrass the same thing as citronella? While the two are similar in many ways – they both come from plants in the Cymbopogon family – there are some differences to note.

Lemongrass is often grown for culinary purposes due to its unique flavor profile, which adds brightness and depth to dishes like curries and soups. On the other hand, citronella is mainly cultivated for its insect-repelling properties (not for human consumption!).

Forms of Citronellla

Citro…what now? If you’re not familiar with citronella beyond those pesky mosquito candles your mother-in-law always brings over during summer barbecues (thanks Deb), here are some common forms you might see:

  • Essential Oil: pure extract typically sold in small bottles
  • Candle/Incense: combined with wax/other materials to diffuse
  • Diffuser Oil/Pods/Stick Ups: packaged goods meant for use around living areas
  • Skin application/remedies:— ingested!

If you’re still unsure what products contain substances suitable or unsafe for intake — consult a specialist, or engineer an experiment and study the results firsthand!

Can You Eat Citronella?

This is the million-dollar question. The short answer is no, it’s not safe to eat citronella. Ingesting citronella oil or candles created from them may cause harm to your digestive system.

Poisonous Ingredients

Citronella contains several volatile oils that are toxic when consumed in large quantities. These include:

  • Geraniol: can cause stomach upset
  • Limonene: can irritate skin and respiratory tract
  • Citral: potentially hepatotoxic (aka bad for liver function)

Note: just because something isn’t meant for consumption doesn’t mean it will always be harmful – many non-food grade substances have positive health benefits! In fact, citronella oil has been studied as an alternative therapy with promising effects against disease-causing bacterial infections [1].

Potential Risks of Eating Citronella

Okay, so we know we’re (probably) not supposed to eat straight up raw citro…er…cit-henrietta?, but what are some potential risks if you do accidentally ingest small amounts? Here are some possibilities:

Stomach Discomfort – possible symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

You might also experience abdominal pain or cramping due to irritation caused by constituents within the plant family Cymbopogon which could agitate digestion (ouch).

Allergic Reactions

Some people may develop allergic reactions if they come into contact with citronellal; while rare , these sometimes manifest in ways like eczema rashes [2].

Central Nervous System Effects

Extreme cases where someone ingested significant amounts of this essential balm with maybe resulted in neurological side effects including seizures[citation needed]

Benefits of Citronella Oil

If it’s not safe to eat citronella, what good could possibly come from this incredulously inert object? Far be it for us to leave you stranded in a sea of wasted insect repellent only fit for the trash. Citronella oil does contain some great benefits when used as directed!

Repelling Insects

The greatest benefit by far. It probably comes as no surprise that burning citronella candles or waving around erratically applied natural oils can reduce your exposure to bug bites and annoying swarms of mosquitos. Geraniol – one of those toxic substances we mentioned earlier – is responsible for this action; mosquitoes hate its smell.

Antimicrobial Properties

In addition to being effective against insects, citrus scents have been touted in recent research studies for their antibacterial ability [1]; far exceeding any usefulness aromatics alone might contribute.

Alternatives To Eating Citronella

Okay so consumables are unfortunately off the menu…but fear not! We’ve got some substitutes ready which maintain the power of repellant, while also being much easier on digestion (and breathing).


One particularly potent antiprotozoal plant family which has shown efficacy through history, mint leaves made into teas or sprays are able to ward off invading bacteria effectively enough that they work vicariously within neighboring plants [4].


While best known outside politics as a tastefully strong flavor player amongst Mediterranean cuisine (and vampire enthusiasts), garlic contains high levels of a sulfur-based chemical called allicin – an efficient insect-killing weapon frequent with commercial pest control groups[5] .

Lemon Eucalyptus Oil

Lemon eucalyptus oil “contains about 85 percent “lemon-scented” essential oil and is widely believed to help keep biting bugs at bay” [3].

In Conclusion…

Citronella should not be eaten in order to avoid risks of poisoning and other health problems. If you’re looking for a natural way to repel insects, try using mint leaves, garlic or lemon eucalyptus oil instead. However, citronella oil does have some great uses outside of consumption – from mosquito repellent candles to cleaning products with antimicrobial properties.

So remember kids: Always double-check which items are intended for eating –and non-breath-stealing ambiances– when wanting an aromatic experience beyond what our norm offers!




[3] Consumer Reports: Do Natural Mosquito Repellents Work?

[4] Shibeshi Woreda [Department of Biology College], Bedane Fanta [University Of Gondor Northwest Ethiopia]
Antimicrobial activity and phytochemical screening of selected medicinal plants used by the People in Gurage Zone, South Central Ethiopia

Jared Koch/Kerry Trueman: Good Food, Great Medicine: A Mediterranean Diet (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers / 2019)

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