Bergamot 101: Benefits & Uses For This Essential Oil Found In Earl Grey Tea

mbg Contributor By Jennifer Chesak
mbg Contributor
Jennifer Chesak is a freelance medical journalist with bylines in several national publications, including Washington Post, Healthline, Prevention, Greatist, Runner’s World, and more. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill School.
Medical review by Sarah Villafranco, M.D.
Founder of Osmia Organics
Sarah Villafranco, M.D., is a natural skin care expert and practiced emergency medicine for 10 years. She received a B.A. from Georgetown University, and then went on to get her M.D. from Georgetown University School of Medicine.
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Image by Marc Tran / Stocksy

You're familiar with bergamot if you've ever found yourself marveling at the citrusy aroma of Earl Grey tea. The bergamot orange, which turns from green to yellow when ripe, is too bitter to eat raw. But the fruit's rind produces a fragrant and flavorful oil that can be used for cooking as well as scenting skin and haircare products. Bergamot, named after Bergamo, Italy, also has potential health benefits.

Research is still ongoing about the ways bergamot can be used to support health and well-being, but we've compiled what's out there so far.

First, a quick heads-up: Bergamot can cause a reaction on the skin when exposed to sunlight, as a result of a phototoxic compound. That same compound can also be harmful if swallowed. Read on to find out how to use bergamot safely.

4 potential benefits of using bergamot essential oils for...

1. Acne

Bergamot's antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and wound-healing properties make it a potentially useful ingredient for acne symptoms. According to a review of existing studies, the essential oil has a long history in Italian folk medicine for helping alleviate skin ailments, including pesky pimples.

Although not yet researched for fighting the bacteria that cause acne, Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), bergamot has been tested for its antimicrobial power against Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus). Not to gross you out, but in one study, scientists found that bergamot inhibited the growth of staph introduced to fish samples. The study showed that bergamot, thanks to its linalool content, has potential as a natural food preservative in fighting off food-borne illness. With bergamot's bacterial-battling prowess, it may be a potential spot treatment for persistent acne with staph colonization.

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2. Haircare 

Many essential oils can be added to scent hair conditioners or other haircare products, and bergamot is no exception. Although only studied in animals, bergamot does show potential to promote hair growth. One small study showed an increase in collagen production and hair growth when bergamot extract and boxthorn were applied to mice for 42 days—though it's unclear whether it was the bergamot or boxthorn working, so more research needs to be done here.

3. Stress

"Some studies have found that the oil reduces stress and can promote feelings of calm and relaxation," says Aragona Giuseppe, GP. "Bergamot oil has also been found to improve negative thoughts, emotions, and mood by lowering cortisol levels, otherwise known as the body's stress hormone."

In one small pilot study of 50 women, researchers found that patients exposed to bergamot essential oil in the waiting room of a mental health facility reported improved feelings of positivity when compared to a control group not exposed to the scent. And in a rat study, bergamot oil inhalation caused the rodents to exhibit less anxiety-related behavior in a maze by reducing their corticosterone response to stress.

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4. Cholesterol 

A systematic review shows bergamot extract to be a promising natural treatment that may lower "bad" cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, LDL) while raising the "good" kind (high-density lipoprotein, HDL) when taken as an oral supplement.

"Of all the beneficial chemicals (polyphenols) in bergamot, a rare combination of flavonoids seems to be the most powerful explanation for its cholesterol-lowering effects based on in vitro studies," says Mawusi Arnett, M.D., MPH, a hospitalist physician at Northwestern. She adds this caveat: "We need more rigorous research in humans before we can recommend bergamot as a first-line replacement for currently validated statin medications."

For now, Arnett says that bergamot extract may be safe to use along with statins or other cholesterol meds, as long as people get the OK from their health care provider first. "Used in this capacity," she adds, "bergamot may offer cholesterol improvement above and beyond the statin."

How to use it—and how not to use it.

Bergamot EO can be used in a number of ways. If you do plan to use bergamot topically for any reason, Kathy Sadowsky, M.S., a registered aromatherapist and licensed massage therapist, says diluting is crucial. "For healthy adults, dilute to 2%," she says. "This is about 10 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier oil." Also with topical use, phototoxicity is a concern, so don't go out in the sun with bergamot essential oil on your skin, hair, or lips.

For stress or anxiety, use bergamot as aromatherapy by placing the oils in a diffuser. "As with all essential oils, diffuse aromas intermittently," Sadowsky says. "Diffuse for 20-minute intervals in open rooms. Avoid diffusing around very young children, pets, and those with certain medical conditions. Discontinue use if the aroma seems irritating to people or pets."

If you're using bergamot in food for that Earl Grey taste and scent, whether in ice cream, pastries, or a DIY tea, choose a bergapten-free, food-grade extract and use sparingly.

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Potential side effects.

Bergamot is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when used as intended. However, there is a case study of a man who drank 1 gallon of Earl Grey tea per day for a long period and developed muscle cramping, blurred vision, and additional issues, all attributed to the bergapten in bergamot.

An allergic reaction to any essential oil is possible. Check out our guide for using EOs safely. Watch for redness, hives, or other unusual symptoms. "Skin patch test a small area before application," Sadowski recommends. "Discontinue use if irritations occur." Bergamot essential oil, if it's not bergapten-free or furocoumarin-free, can produce a phototoxic reaction when exposed to sunlight. Such a reaction may look like a rash or blistering from a sunburn and may leave permanent scars.

Always check with your physician before using bergamot in any form, especially if you take medications. Do not use bergamot if you are pregnant or nursing.

Bergamot essential oil, derived from the bergamot orange tree and known for its uplifting aroma in Earl Grey tea, has a host of potential health benefits. It may be able to help with skin conditions like acne, ease stress, reduce pain, and even improve cholesterol in conjunction with other medications. Research is still ongoing for these health and well-being boosts. But one thing we know just by nose: Bergamot has a gorgeous, citrusy scent. It makes a stunning DIY perfume, especially when you want a simple pick-me-up.

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