Bitter orange oil and sweet orange oil are different species but they are used in similar ways. The fruit produces essential oils, either cold-pressed from the rind or steam distilled. The steam distillation process produces an oil with a different aroma than the cold-pressed version. Generally, the bitter orange has, as you would expect, a more sour or bitter aroma than the sweet orange, which is sweeter and a little juicier smell.
Orange Oil Species
How do you tell the difference? The orange species get really confusing really quickly. There are so many types of oranges and so many different names. Sweet orange oil is most often called orange oil. Bitter orange usually has that descriptor attached. But species names are always the most important information.
Bitter orange: Citrus aurantium
Sweet orange: Citrus sinensis, Citrus aurantium dulcis, Citrus aurantium var. sinensis.
Bitter Orange & Sweet Orange Origins
The orange trees have been around for a long time. Sweet oranges are native to Asia, though some literature also says India, and are now grown worldwide. It does best in warm climates, and the warmer states of the USA are actually responsible for massive production. Sweet orange is more popular than bitter orange and makes up most of the production.
But sweet orange is a hybrid between mandarin and pomelo, which appears to have occurred centuries ago in India, Asia, China. Which may account for some of the confusion around its origins. It’s not a wild tree, and is one of the most cultivated trees in the world. You should be wary of anyone who claims to have wild orange oil from indigenous Citrus sinensis.
Because oranges are so readily available and it doesn’t take much product to make an oil, it is an affordable oil.
Traditional & Current Uses
We’ve been consuming oranges, and using dried peels, and extracts from oranges for years. We consume oranges for dietary vitamins, antioxidants, flavonoids. Bitter orange is traditionally used for indigestion, nausea, constipation, and as a tonic.
Sweet orange is traditionally used for similar reasons: constipation, cramps, colic, loose bowel, bronchitis, cough, cold, as well as anxiety, stress, weight management, heart health.
Both fruits are regular food staples and both are flavouring agents in the food industry. Sodas, flavoured waters, syrups, alcohol, gum, candies, dressings, marinades as well as fragrance, cosmetics, and cleaning products.
Bitter Orange Controversy
If you’ve searched bitter orange on the Internet, you’ve probably encountered articles about the dangers of bitter orange in weight loss pills. This appears to be extracts and dried bitter orange, which isn’t the same as aromatherapy. Bitter orange appears to replace ephedra, a banned herb because of its link heart attacks. Bitter orange contains p-synephrine, which is similar to the main chemical in ephedra called ephedrine.
The NCAA considers synephrine as a stimulant and banned supplements that contain synephrine from bitter orange.
But there isn’t any good research on bitter orange supplements for weight loss. Comparatively, some of the research we do have about it and its negative side effects show that it was part of products that contained other ingredients, so it’s not clear.
You naturally ingest synephrine from eating a bitter orange or drinking orange juice. Consuming it in these food sources is considered safe. Some say normal doses of bitter orange are not considered to be a stimulant.
In Canada, the government does not allow supplements or extracts that combine caffeine and synephrine, sourced from bitter orange or other plant sources. It doesn’t allow ephedra either. But it has a dose limit for bitter orange and it states that use under certain amounts are safe, providing you read the label for drug interactions and contraindications and dosage etc, based on a long history of safe use of bitter orange in traditional chinese medicine.
Essential oils are not the same as extracts or supplements, so how does this factor in? To the best of my knowledge and research, bitter orange oil doesn’t contain synephrine.
It is 90-95% limonene, a compound with many excellent benefits. It also has beta-myrcene, linalool, and bergapten.
Sweet orange oil is also mostly limonene, but also contains beta-myrcene, and linalool.
Today, we use bitter orange and sweet orange oil in similar ways. Applied topically for antifungal purposes like ringworm, jock itch, athlete’s foot. Diffused, or also applied topically, for stress reduction, anxiety, low moods. As a sedative, relaxant, calmative. It also has antibacterial properties, so is often used for blemish-prone skin. Applied topically for digestive aid: indigestion, constipation, flatulence, nausea, pain associated with digestive health problems. It is a carminative and antispasmodic.
Orange oil works through the limbic application, which is the effect of essential oils on the emotional brain through the sense of smell. We know that inhaling components of citrus oils influence the activity of brain areas.
So they’re slightly different plants, with slightly different chemical composition, but overall very similar, and we use them fairly interchangeably. The biggest difference being the smell. I prefer the sweet orange for it’s sweeter smell.
The bergapten in bitter orange oil makes it phototoxic. Avoid sunlight or UV light for 12 hours after application. Sweet orange, however, is not phototoxic.
Both essential oils are otherwise considered fairly gentle and safe. Sweet orange may cause irritation to the skin. Dilution is recommended.
Citrus essential oils, in general, are prone to oxidize quickly. Oxidized essential oils are likely to cause skin irritation. With these orange oils, make sure to store with the lid tightly secured in a cool, dark place. Some people prefer to store in the fridge, which also works. Make sure to use your oils up rather than let them sit on the counter. Make sure to dilute before applying.
Overall, both essential oils are quite safe to use. Sweet orange especially is great for children. It’s great to diffuse in their spaces. It smells wonderful, reduces anxiousness and stress, and has that physiological response of reducing cortisol, but it also promotes happy moods and good spirits. And it’s great for upset tummies for children.