Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which form the foundation of essential oils, can be found in seeds, flowers, stems, bark, leaves and other parts of plants. As a general rule, usually one essential oil is extracted from one plant. However, some exceptions are worth mentioning, such as cinnamon, whose essential oil is extracted from both the bark and the leaves. Cinnamon essential oil is popular in autumn and winter aromatherapy blends for its unforgettable, nostalgic aroma.
But which cinnamon oil? And why?
Did you know that there are two “true” cinnamon essential oils sourced from the same cinnamon species (Cinnamomum verum)? Each oil has slightly different therapeutic properties and uses. So how do you choose?
We understand that it can be confusing to determine which one you need, so here is a quick, helpful guide that will help you know whether to choose cinnamon bark essential oil or cinnamon leaf essential oil—and why.
And stay tuned for a future blog post (or subscribe and get it in your inbox) where we’ll discuss C. cassia (“false” cinnamon oil) in greater detail!
The most popular species of cinnamon from which essential oil is produced is true cinnamon—Cinnamomum verum from the Lauraceae family. It also goes by the botanical name Cinnamomum zeylanicum, which translates to Ceylon cinnamon.
Cinnamomum verum is a small, bushy evergreen tree which thrives in warm, tropical climates. It is native to Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon; hence the second botanical name), southern India, and Bangladesh.
Cinnamon was one of the earliest and most valuable spices among those traded in antiquity. Ancient manuscripts mention it as a key component in incense and perfume making, and it was highly respected by ancient pharmacists and doctors.
Two different essential oils can be obtained from true cinnamon: one from the bark of the tree, and the other from its leaves. There are significant differences in their chemical composition, so they are used in slightly different ways.
The bark of the cinnamon tree is steam distilled. The shoots are harvested twice a year after each wet season when the rain has softened the tree's bark. The outer bark of the cut shoots is first removed, after which the inner bark is softened by rubbing a brass rod along the stem. Brass is specifically chosen as it does not discolour the spice like other metals do. The bark is then gently peeled into strips, which are spread out to dry. As they do, they curl into the well-known shape of the cinnamon “tubes” or sticks that we are all familiar with.
Aromatically, cinnamon bark essential oil has a characteristic strong and intense cinnamon scent with slightly woody, spicy, sweet notes. It is "deeper" aromatically than cinnamon leaf oil due to its cinnamaldehyde content, which is responsible for the distinctive cinnamon aroma.
Cinnamon bark essential oil is aldehyde-rich oil, specifically in cinnamaldehyde (63.1–75.7%), and it also contains the phenol eugenol (2.0–13.3%) (Lawrence, 1995; Tateo & Chizzini, 1989; Kubeczka, 2002 in Tisserand & Young, 2014). These chemical compounds make cinnamon bark essential oil a great choice when antibacterial or antifungal action is needed. Cinnamon bark essential oil ranks among the strongest bactericidal substances known in aromatherapy (Mohamed et al., 2020). Because it is so potent, it could easily compete with carvacrol, a constituent in the phenol chemical family which can be found in oregano essential oil.
But what is really interesting is that cinnamaldehyde alone demonstrates lower antimicrobial activity than the whole essential oil (Cava-Roda et al., 2021). This might be caused by the synergy between different constituents of the oil.
This oil is also a great choice when you need stimulatory effects. For general debility and older people throughout the winter months, Valnet (1980, as cited in Battaglia, 2018) advises using cinnamon bark essential oil as a nerve tonic. In vitro, cinnamaldehyde reduced the synthesis of influenza A virus proteins (Hayashi et al., 2007), which can contribute to the oil’s antiviral properties. While this research may be applicable to topical use, inhalation is often preferable because cinnamaldehyde can cause skin sensitization if used over the essential oil’s recommended maximum dermal level.
Cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon bark oil is a strong dermal irritant and sensitiser. Tisserand and Young (2014) state the maximum dermal use level is 0.07% (1.5 drops in 100 ml of carrier oil). Cinnamon bark essential oil is contraindicated during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Caution is advised when using this oil for dermal purposes.
Unlike cinnamon bark oil, cinnamon leaf oil is produced from the leaves of C. verum, which are frequently harvested at the end of each rainy season. The leaves are stripped from the branches and allowed to dry for a couple of days before distillation, as this can reduce the distillation time. Large wooden kettles that can hold up to 200 kg (400 lb) of dried leaves are traditionally used for distilling the leaves. Some farmers turn to more contemporary techniques of steam distillation using either copper or stainless steel stills because this labour-intensive process can take up to 12 hours to complete.
Compared to cinnamon bark essential oil, cinnamon leaf essential oil has a lighter and muskier scent, sometimes described as more clove-like. While both are pungent and warm, if you were to compare them side by side, you would notice the difference. Some people find it to be less sweet than cinnamon bark.
Cinnamon leaf essential oil's clove-like smell is due mainly to the phenol eugenol (68.6–87.0%); whereas cinnamaldehyde is present in trace amounts (0.6–1.1%) (Lawrence, 1979 p. 29, 1995g p. 148, p. 201 in Tisserand & Young, 2014). In fact, one could say that the proportions of these two constituents are “reversed” in these two essential oils. It is intriguing that two essential oils produced from the same plant, but from different plant parts, can vary so much! Because of its high phenol content, cinnamon leaf essential oil chemically resembles clove bud oil, and therefore they share therapeutic properties.
This essential oil also has strong antibacterial and antifungal actions, but not to the same extent as cinnamon bark oil. Due to its high eugenol content, cinnamon leaf essential oil can be extremely useful for its analgesic and local anesthetic activity on the musculoskeletal system. The eugenol found in cinnamon leaf essential oil also possesses significant antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (Pramod et al., 2010). Similar to cinnamon bark oil, cinnamon leaf oil can be used as a stimulatory neurotonic. Price, Price, & Price (2021) suggest that cinnamon leaf essential oil is a good choice when dealing with lower respiratory tract or oral infections. Considering its antibacterial properties, we can conclude that cinnamon leaf oil would be most helpful with bacterial infections.
Cinnamon leaf essential oil has a moderate risk of skin sensitization, mostly due to its eugenol content, and also a low risk of mucous membrane irritation. Tisserand and Young (2014) state that the maximum dermal use is 0.6% (around 12 drops in 100 ml of carrier oil).
The “best” cinnamon essential oil will be the one that has the specific therapeutic properties you are looking for, and which can be used safely. Although two different essential oils can be produced from C. verum, each requires a solid understanding of their unique chemistry, safety guidelines, and therapeutic properties.
We are here to help you use essential oils consciously and carefully, so you can safely enjoy the benefits of aromatherapy.
Do you have questions about cinnamon bark and cinnamon leaf essential oils? Let us know in the comments!
Cinnamon (C. verum) leaf and bark essential oils are covered in depth in our Certified Master Aromatherapist Program, including detailed monographs that provide each oil’s therapeutic benefits, safety, conservation status, and history. If you’re already a certified aromatherapist and you’re ready to take your aromatherapy career to the next level, sign up for our free email series to learn how this program can give you the skills, confidence, and leadership to share your work in aromatherapy at a level in line with industry experts.
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Battaglia, S. (2018). The complete guide to aromatherapy vol. 1 — Foundations & materia medica (3rd ed.). Black Pepper Creative.
Cava-Roda, R., Taboada-Rodríguez, A., López-Gómez, A., Martínez-Hernández, G. B., & Marín-Iniesta, F. (2021). Synergistic antimicrobial activities of combinations of vanillin and essential oils of cinnamon bark, cinnamon leaves, and cloves. Foods, 10(6), 1406. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods10061406
Thompson, C., & Ablard, K. (2022). Cinnamomum verum (bark) monograph. Certified Master Aromatherapist Program v1-2022-06. Essence of Thyme College of Holistic Studies.
Thompson, C., & Ablard, K. (2022). Cinnamomum verum (leaf) monograph. Certified Master Aromatherapist Program v1-2022-06. Essence of Thyme College of Holistic Studies.
Hayashi, K., Imanishi, N., Kashiwayama, Y., Kawano, A., Terasawa, K., Shimada, Y., & Ochiai, H. (2007). Inhibitory effect of cinnamaldehyde, derived from Cinnamomi cortex, on the growth of influenza A/PR/8 virus in vitro and in vivo. Antiviral research, 74(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.antiviral.2007.01.003
Mohamed, A., Abdur, R., & Alaa MM, S. (2020). Cinnamon bark as antibacterial agent: A mini-review. GSC Biological and Pharmaceutical Sciences, 10(1), 103–108. https://doi.org/10.30574/gscbps.2020.10.1.0012
Pramod, K., Ansari, S. H., & Ali, J. (2010). Eugenol: a natural compound with versatile pharmacological actions. Natural Product Communications, 5(12), 1999–2006.
Price, S., & Price, L. (2007). Aromatherapy for Health Professionals (3rd ed.). Elsevier.
Price, S., Price, L., & Price, P. (2021). Aromatherapy for Health Professionals (5th ed.). Elsevier.
Tisserand, R., & Young, R. (2014). Essential oil safety: a guide for health care professionals (2nd ed.). Churchill Livingstone.
Vasconcelos, N. G., Silva, K. E., Croda, J., & Simionatto, S. (2020). Antibacterial activity of Cinnamomum cassia L. essential oil in a carbapenem- and polymyxin-resistant Klebsiella aerogenes strain. Revista da Sociedade Brasileira de Medicina Tropical, 53, e20200032. https://doi.org/10.1590/0037-8682-0032-2020