Neroli can be called a "scent fit for a princess," which it literally is. Derived from the blossoms of the bitter orange (Citrus aurantium subsp. Dulcis), neroli was popularized by Anne Marie Orsini, duchess of Bracciano and princess of Nerola, Italy (1642-1722), as a perfume for gloves. Scents for baths, handkerchiefs and gloves was a fad among European rulers in the 1690s and Madame de Orsins, as the princess was often called, made neroli better known among her fellow royalty, even if she didn’t (as some have claimed) actually invent it.
The bitter orange came to southern Europe about the year 1000 A.D., by way of Arab traders, who brought it from its native Southeast Asia by way of India. Although the fruit, as its name suggests, is too bitter to eat, it has such a beautiful aroma that the tree has been grown for its scent products ever since. The fruit pulp and peel are used, however, to make marmalade. Slices of the peel, and sometimes entire small bitter oranges, are candied as a confection.
There is some confusion concerning different varieties of the bitter orange, including bergamia (Bergamot orange), amara, oklawaha, myrtifolia and Bigaradia varieties. All are true bitter oranges, but the neroli derived from their blossoms may have subtle differences depending upon the variety from which it is made. The blossoms of the tree are picked during the short blooming season during the weeks, at least in Europe, at the end of April and the beginning of May. The petals are water distilled to extract the oil; steam distillation is not used, as this damages the quality of the product. It takes a ton -- a full 2,000 pounds! – of petals to make just one quart of neroli oil.
The bitter orange tree also yields other, less expensive, scents. The water used in the distillation process for neroli oil is saved as "orange flower water," which is often used as a body splash and, oddly enough, is also used as an ingredient in many Mediterranean dishes. There is another product of the bitter orange, called petitgrain (meaning "little piece"), that should not be confused with neroli. Petitgrain is steam distilled from the leaves and the new, green twig growth of the bitter oil tree and is used in eau de cologne. Oil is also cold pressed from bitter orange seeds, and is most often used in soaps and candles.
Neroli oil, however, holds a unique place in the scents derived from the bitter orange tree. The sheer amount of blossoms required to make just a small amount of the oil would make it precious, but it is the scent which makes it so treasured. It is described as sweet and spicy, with floral notes, a subtle but memorable scent which, its admirers say, is never cloying. Despite its high cost, it is used in more than 12% of all quality perfumes currently being produced. This wonderful scent is used in many skin care products, particularly in creams, lotions and gels.
In addition to its primary use as a scent, neroli oil also has direct skin care benefits. The oil, when applied topically, has strong antifungal properties. It is sometimes used on the feet, in particular, to treat fungal infections between toes and under the nails. It is also a marked cicatrisant, meaning that it helps heal scars and stretch marks. Neroli oil does this by promoting the regeneration of skin tissue cells, replacing scarred tissue with live, healthy cells. In aromatherapy, neroli oil is prized as providing a soothing effect. It is said to relieve tension and anxiety and, according to some reports, has been used successfully in anger-management training. There have been claims that neroli oil has aphrodisiac properties; there have even been scientific studies to test this theory, but aside from anecdotal reports, there is no evidence that neroli oil has this effect. Some researchers credit its relaxing and calming qualities as having the same result as a true aphrodisiac. Finally, it has long been rumored that neroli oil is an ingredient in the secret formula for Coca Cola.
Neroli oil is nontoxic, nonphototoxic and does not cause skin irritation. It can be used safely with any skin type.