Neroli oil has an intensely green, citrus and floral scent, reputed to cheer the mood and help find inner peace. On the skin, the oil is toning, soothing and antimicrobial. It is also thought to be an antioxidant, protecting the skin from external assaults like pollution or sun rays and improving cells’ ability to regenerate.
The bitter orange tree (Citrus aurantium amara) is an evergreen member of the Rutaceae plant family. Many parts of the tree are used for perfuming and culinary purposes: the fruits flavour food and drinks, the flowers are distilled to produce neroli oil and orange flower absolute and, finally, petitgrain oil is obtained from the leaves and twigs of the tree.
Marie-Anne de La Trémoille (1642 - 1722) named the bitter oranger flower oil "neroli" after the city Nerola in Italy of which she was the princess. She loved to wear the oil as a perfume and created a trend in European royal courts - she would probably be called an influencer nowadays.
As its name suggests, this essential oil is produced in Lebanon. Although widely used in aromatherapy for its stress-relieving effects, neroli oil is a true luxury as the distillation process requires a lot of flowers for little oil.
But despite its popularity, neroli is in short supply. It takes at least 1,000 pounds of orange blossom – from which it’s distilled – to make just one pound of oil. And the limited amount produced around the world has to be shared among the global cosmetics and aromatherapy industry (it’s even rumoured to be a closely-guarded secret ingredient in a very popular soft drink).
The oil is most commonly produced in northern Africa. Egypt is a major producer of neroli oil, but in any given year the whole country’s output will amount to around just 1,200kg. Lush, which has since 2005 predominantly obtained its neroli oil from family-run producers in Tunisia, uses around 700kg a year.
So it’s important for us to seek out increasingly regenerative sources, finding high quality oil for our range of neroli-based products in a way that supports the environment and benefits the people producing it. One new avenue we’re exploring is Lebanon. The Middle Eastern country’s long, hot and dry summers, peppered with short, cool rainy winters, make it an ideal climate for the bitter orange blossom tree, and indeed citrus products are one of Lebanon’s biggest exports.
Lebanon predominantly harvests the bitter orange tree to make orange flower water, which is widely used as a flavouring in desserts and as a natural remedy for some digestive complaints. While orange flower water is usually the by-product of neroli production, here, neroli oil is the by-product of the orange flower water, which makes it a particularly environmentally-friendly source – no additional stress is being put on the environment to make it.
But sustainability isn’t just about the volume of plants that are cultivated and subsequently harvested. It’s also about the wider areas in which these plants are grown – their wildlife, their ecosystems and the people that live within them. This is why it is important to work with likeminded producers in Lebanon and create a relationship that enables all of these things to flourish.
Bird hunting is a major problem in Lebanon, with some 2.6 million birds shot or trapped illegally during migration periods. Lush only purchases bitter orange tree blossoms from farmers in the country that guarantee their lands and orchards are designated ‘no hunt’ zones, and we work with BirdLife International – a global charity that works to protect hundreds of thousands of birds across at least 399 species throughout Lebanon and the rest of the world – to make sure these requirements are enforced.
Blossoms from these farmers are then taken to small-scale orange water producers – family-run businesses that have honed their craft in distillery over many generations, using traditional old-fashioned copper stills kept in gardens and sheds. Their expertise, skill and attention to detail guarantee the highest quality oils while supporting Lebanon’s local economies.
Our pioneering producer relationships won’t reduce the growing global demand for neroli oil, but they are an important step in creating regenerative relationships that benefit both customers and local communities.
Words by Rachel England