Ylang ylang (pronounced ē-ˌläŋ-ˈē-ˌläŋ) essential oil is distilled from the flowers of the fast-growing evergreen tree, Cananga odorata f. genuine, of the custard apple family (Annonaceae). Originating in the Indo-Malayan region, the French brought the tree to the Reunion Islands, Comoros, and Madagascar where it is mainly grown and distilled for its essential oil.
The tree blooms nearly year-round, forever giving of its fragrant flowers. As night is the time when its flowers release the most essence to attract its main pollinators — nocturnal moths — this is the optimal time to hand-harvest the flowers. The symbiotic relationship of reproduction gives metaphor to the sexual nature of the essential oil. The flowers grow in clusters, evolving from a young green to a waxy yellow over a period of 15-20 days. If left alone, the flowers produce fleshy, olive-like berry clusters which are enjoyed by local fauna that help distribute the trees’ seeds.
Although it is known as “poor man’s jasmine,” it is a key botanical used in perfumery, notably Chanel No. 5.
It was a key ingredient of the popular Macassar oil of the Victorian era and is still widely used in body and hair care products. In the islands of the Pacific, natives mixed Ylang ylang flowers with coconut oil into a mixture called ‘borri-borri’ which they use to protect their hair from sea salt and support skin health.
Of note: “Ylang ylang” essential oil is distilled from Cananga odorata f. odorata/f. genuina. Also on the market is “Canaga” oil, which is distilled from Cananga odorata f. macrophylla and characteristically less expensive than, more aromatically “green” and less floral and less subtle than “Ylang.” This is a fine example of why knowing how an essence smells, Latin binomials and country-of-origin is important when using essential oils.
Ylang ylang essential oil extends an invitation to embody patience; to settle into a languid state of brilliant sensuality where you may confidently smile into the eyes of love–which in-turn reflect back your inherent beauty.
Ylang ylang essential is widely known for its affinity for skin and hair care and its euphoric effect on the mind; it also benefits the heart and immunity. The following are situations where it shines:
|Musculoskeletal & Circulatory||Hypertension, heart palpitations, muscle spasms|
|Integumentary||Oily skin, sebum balancing, oily hair tonic, aging or stressed skin|
|Nervous/Psyche/Emotion||Antidepressant, stress, agitation, insomnia, anxiety, relaxing yet uplifting, euphoric sensuality|
|Reproductive||Aphrodisiac, frigidity, impotence, PMS, amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea|
Chemistry Highlights: Ylang ylang is a fractionated essential oil, meaning different fractions are removed based on distillation time-this is mainly favored by the perfume and cosmetics industries as first fractions are “sweeter” and more “floral.” During the distillation process, the grades become richer in heavier compounds (sesquiterpenes) and poorer in the lighter, more volatile compounds (esters, aldehydes, alcohols, etc.). There are five fractions available: Extra Super, Extra, First, Second, and Third.1 Ylang ylang Complete is a combination of the first four distillates.2
So What’s the Difference?
Not a huge difference per se, mostly a subtle difference in ester content and sesquiterpene content. Ylang ylang extra has a higher content of monoterpene alcohol components (>20%) versus the complete (<4%). This could indicate that ylang ylang extra may be of slightly more benefit to the skin and more sedative due to the rich linalol content. Both have a similar ester content supporting their antispasmodic activity. Ylang ylang complete has a much higher content of benzyl benzoate. All in all, this comparison helps to understand why and how different fractions of ylang ylang can be applied for their similar therapeutic actions.
From an Aromatherapist’s perspective it is worth using the “Complete” fraction of the oil as you will be working with a majority of the whole distilled essence. Ylang ylang Complete is rich in sesquiterpenes (i.e., beta caryophyllene, Germacrene D), and strongly supported by esters (e.g., benzyl benzoate, farnesyle acetate). Note that all references of Ylang ylang in this article, unless otherwise noted, are of the Complete fraction of the distillation.
Is Ylang ylang Essential Oil Safe?
Ylang ylang essential oil is thought to be a moderate sensitizer and is not recommended for hypersensitive, diseased, or damaged skin. So, although the oil excels in skin and hair care, use prudence: use appropriate dilutions and delivery methods, spot test and monitor usage for those with fragile skin.
Blending with Ylang ylang Essential Oil
Ylang ylang complete imbues the air with creamy-vanilla molecules reminiscent of ephemeral spring aromas: hyacinth, narcissus and daffodil. A calm, warming presence floats in as the aromatic molecules coax you outward, luminously. Beaming.
The oil lingers as it dries down: lime green, light yellow, white, smooth, round but not contained, waxy, chalky and powdery. It gives you permission to walk into the space of confident radiance-allowing you to relax into your sensuality, not being bothered by the mundane. Ylang ylang is a confident smile: personified as a sexy someone who comfortably exudes an easeful joy.
Ylang ylang blends well with: Sweet orange (Citrus sinensis), Bergamot (Citrus bergamia), Mandarin (Citrus reticulata), Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi), Ginger (Zingiber officinale), Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), Cinnamon leaf (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Rose (Rosa damascena), Clary sage (Salvia sclarea), Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), Jasmine (Jasminum sambac).
Creating Wellness Products with Ylang Ylang
Kissable Soft Lip Balm
Aromatic, volatile oils are incredible allies for bridging the mind and body, psyche and soma. This is a perfect opportunity to add joy and romance to a nourishing lip balm for lusciously soft lips.
The floral essential oils in this blend where chosen for their affinity to the skin as well as their calming effect on the mind. Peppermint was chosen to add a slight tingling sensation and brightness and clarity to the blend.
What you need to create approximately 2 oz. (60ml or 12-15 tubes):
- Small lidded bottle for essential oils
- Double boiler
- Glass measuring cup (16 oz. works well)
- Stirrer (e.g., stainless steel spoon, glass stirring rods)
- Spatulas for working with base oils & butters
- Containers for weighing your ingredients
- Lip balm containers (I often use these or these, but don’t feel limited by these options…)
- Paper towels
- Flat tray to hold the balm containers
|Essential Oils and Carrier/Base Products||Purpose/Intention||Amount|
|Beeswax||Emulsifier, humectant, Rigidity||12 g|
|Shea butter* (Vitellaria paradoxa)||Emollient, nourishing, solid at room temperature||15 g|
|Cocoa butter* (Theobroma cacao)||Emollient, nourishing, solid at room temp||9 g|
|Fixed oils**||Emollient, slip||24 g|
|Neroli (Citrus aurantium var amara) essential oil||Cracked/inflamed skin, calming||12 drops|
|Ylang ylang Complete (Canaga odorata Complete) essential oil||Stressed skin, calming||7 drops|
|Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) essential oil||Cracked/inflamed skin, balancing||5 drops|
|Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) essential oil||Clearing, refreshing, tingle sensation||5 drops|
|Rose otto (Rosa damascena) essential oil||Delicate skin, calming, cracked/inflamed skin||3 drops|
*Note: I chose to use organic, deodorized butters as I want the volatile oil aromas to come through in the usage experience, not the fixed oil aromas.
**Note: Have fun and be creative when choosing fixed oils! My latest batch included Castor oil (Ricinus communis), a Linden Blossom (Tilia cordata) CO2 Total extract I melted into Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) oil and Pomegranate (Punica granatum) oil.
How to make:
- Measure out the essential oils into a small, lidded bottle and set aside. It is preferable to do this a day or so before making the balm so the molecules mingle.
- Weigh and measure out your base ingredients and set aside.
- Set up the double boiler: I like to do a “double- double” boil, where I put water in the bottom pot, water in the top pot and set a glass measuring cup into the top pot so there is an extra gentle melt.
- Melt your solid ingredients in the measuring cup for easy pouring. Melt the solids first, preferably by melting point: wax first until melted, followed by cocoa then shea. Stir well until everything is incorporated.
- Turn off the heat and add the liquid fixed oils next-stirring quickly to combine. Do not over-heat the oils.
- Add the essential oil blend to the base and stir well to incorporate.
- Place your containers on the flat tray then fill up the containers. For even setting, place the containers on the tray in the fridge or freezer (you do not need to do this).
- Once set, cap the containers and label appropriately.
A Modern Take on Macassar Oil
Macassar oil was mainly used by men in Victorian and Edwardian times as a hair conditioner to groom and style the hair. The oil was so named as the ingredients were purportedly purchased at the port of Makassar in Indonesia. One of the famed ingredients was supposedly Ylang ylang. The anti-Macassar (i.e., the doilies put on chair backs and arms so associated with heavy Victorian décor) was invented to protect furnishings from the oil.
I created the following compound after reading through a few old Macassar oil recipes. The intention behind the formula is to provide nourishment and stimulation to the scalp and conditioning and shine to the hair shaft.
What you need to create approximately 30 ml (1 ounce) of product:
- Small lidded bottle for essential oils
- 1 oz. bottle with pump dispenser or flip top
- Measuring cups/graduated cylinders
|Essential Oils and Carrier/Base Products||Purpose/Intention||Amount|
|Coconut oil, fractionated (Cocos nucifera)||Emollient, protective||15 ml|
|Sesame oil (Sesamum indicum)||Penetrating, nourishing, balancing||13 ml|
|Castor oil (Ricinus communis)||Emollient, humectant, penetrating||2 ml|
|Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil||Cleansing, oily scalp||6 drops|
|Ylang ylang Complete (Canaga odorata Complete) essential oil||Scalp tonic, sebum balancing, oily scalp||5 drops|
|Rosemary verbenone (Rosmarinus officinalis ct verbenone) essential oil||Cleansing, regenerative||2 drops|
|Rose otto (Rosa damascena) essential oil||Regenerative, oily scalp, cleansing||1 drop|
|Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) essential oil||Stimulating and for olfactory purposes||1 drop|
How to make:
- Measure out the essential oils into the small, lidded bottle and set aside. It is preferable to do this a day or so before making the hair oil so the aromas mingle.
- Measure out the fixed oils and add them to the 1 oz. bottle.
- Add the essential oil blend. Affix the bottle top and shake well to incorporate the oils.
- Wipe the bottle and label appropriately.
How to use:
For the scalp: take 1-3 drops into your palms, rub together then massage into the scalp with your fingertips. Let the oil nourish your scalp for 5-10 minutes then wash-out with a gentle shampoo and/or conditioner.
For split ends and smoothing the cuticle: apply AFTER washing your hair avoiding the scalp. Apply a drop of the oil to your hands and rub them together. Taking a section of your hair, start at the ends and work your way up stopping a couple inches from the scalp.
Be with the plants in their many forms, take their messages and let them guide you. Happy blending and creating!
- Benini C, Ringuet M, Wathelet JP, Lognay G, du Jardin P, Fauconnier ML. (2011). Variations in the essential oils from ylang ylang (Cananga odorata [Lam.] Hook f. & Thomson form genuina) in the Western Indian Ocean islands. Flavour Fragr. J. 27, 356-366.
- Tisserand, R. and Young, R. (2014) Essential Oil Safety, 2nd Edition. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
Written by: Amy Anthony
(Aromatic Studies Instructor)
Amy Anthony B.A, is a certified Aromatherapist with a private practice in Manhattan, NY. Her focus is on customized aromatherapy and education: she consults with clients and teaches workshops at the NYIOA and around the NY metro area. Amy also enjoys formulating and devising delivery methods that encourage the safe, practical use of aromatherapy—like fizzing bath balls, shower bars and sleep mists.
Amy has been a gardener since the age of 5 and has continually found ways to connect with plants since moving to NYC in 1999. Her knowledge of plants brings a holistic, plant-based approach to her teaching and practice of aromatherapy. Amy is also a certified master composter, has volunteered at Saint George’s Common Table since 2012 and is a trained doula. More can be found about her aromatherapy practice at http://nycaroma.com.