The Citrus bergamia is a flowering citrus tree that thrives in Mediterranean climates and grows to be roughly 40 feet tall. Approximately 80 percent of the Citrus bergamia trees in the world are found in the Calabria region of southern Italy. The tree is also native to the south of France. Biologists believe that the species originated from natural crosses between the sweet lemon and Seville orange trees.
During the winter months, the Citrus bergamia produces white flowers and then bears fruit. This fruit is green in color with a leathery peel that is similar to a lime and has a distinctive pear shape. Bitter in taste, the fruit of the Citrus bergamia, commonly called the bergamot orange, is used to flavor Earl Gray teas and to produce marmalades. The fruit is now grown commercially in southern Turkey for use as a foodstuff.
The peel of the bergamot orange is used to produce bergamot oil, an ingredient used in beauty products. To obtain the oil, the peels are removed from the fruit and then typically boiled in water to produce a steam. The steam is passed through a distillation apparatus, which condenses the gas to the liquid oil. The popularity of bergamot oil in skin care products has led to the commercial farming of the tree in areas outside of Italy and France, particularly in Côte d'Ivoire.
Bergamot oil is a popular ingredient because of its fragrance, which gives products a spicy, yet clean scent. In 1714, bergamot oil was first used as a fragrance by Giovanni Maria Farina, the man responsible for inventing the eau de cologne in 1704. The oil is widely used in modern colognes, after shaves, perfumes, body sprays and deodorants.
The scent of bergamot oil is used in aromatherapy to combat depression and alleviate anxiety. In recent years, hospitals have begun to use bergamot oil inhalation as a pre-treatment for patients undergoing radiation for cancer. Studies have found that such patients benefit from the calming effects of the scent and experience less discomfort and anxiety during radiation treatments.
Another common use for bergamot oil is in phototherapy, a clinical skin care treatment that involves exposing the skin to sunlight. A chemical in bergamot called psoralen penetrates the outer layer of the skin and makes the DNA of the cells in the middle layer more receptive to the effects of sunlight. This primes the skin for exposure to natural or artificial sunlight, making the treatments more effective. As a photosensitizer pre-treatment, bergamot is used in phototherapy for the treatment of psoriasis, vitiligo and mycosis fungoides tumors.
Bergamot oil has the natural ability to kill some forms of bacteria and some species of parasites. Some skin care companies include bergamot in antibacterial hand soaps and lotions. The oil can also be used as a supportive ingredient in products designed for the treatment of acne, which is often caused by bacterial infections. Bergamot essential oil is also an effective natural treatment for head lice and is a popular alternative to the use of harsh insecticides.
When applied to the skin, bergamot produces a cooling, soothing sensation and is often added to skin and hair care products like cleansers and shampoos to make them more refreshing. The oil also helps to lessen skin irritation and is found in lotions, creams and treatments for dry, sensitive and damaged skin.
While bergamot is generally a safe ingredient, some people with skin allergies may develop itching or redness following use, particularly if they are allergic to other types of citrus fruits. Irritation that develops from the oil usually fades quickly once the use of bergamot is discontinued.
One drawback to the use of bergamot in large quantities in skin care products is that it makes the skin more sensitive to sunlight. As a result, the tissue becomes more vulnerable to ultraviolet radiation, causing sunburn and cellular damage to occur more quickly. With repeated use of bergamot and repeated sun exposure, the likelihood of developing premature signs of aging like wrinkles and some forms of skin cancer increases. Those who use products that contain concentrated amounts of bergamot oil or who apply the oil directly to their skin should wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen on a daily basis to lessen these risks.