In vitro cytotoxic activity of Cymbopogon citratus L. and Cymbopogon nardus L. essential oils from Togo

  • Koffi Koba Unité de Recherche sur les Agroressources et la Santé Environnementale, Ecole Supérieure d’Agronomie, Université de Lomé, BP. 20131, Lomé Togo.
  • Komla Sanda Unité de Recherche sur les Agroressources et la Santé Environnementale, Ecole Supérieure d’Agronomie, Université de Lomé, BP. 20131, Lomé Togo.
  • Catherine Guyon Equipe des Sciences Séparatives, Biologiques et Pharmaceutiques, IFR 133, Faculté de Médecine et de Pharmacie, Université de Franche-Comté, Place Saint-Jacques, 25030, Besançon, Cedex France.
  • Christine Raynaud Laboratoire de Chimie Agro-Industrielle, Arômes et Métrologie Sensorielle, UMR 1010, INP-ENSIACET, 118, route de Narbonne, 31077 Toulouse cedex, France.
  • Jean Pierre Chaumont Equipe des Sciences Séparatives, Biologiques et Pharmaceutiques, IFR 133, Faculté de Médecine et de Pharmacie, Université de Franche-Comté, Place Saint-Jacques, 25030, Besançon, Cedex France.
  • Laurence Nicod Equipe des Sciences Séparatives, Biologiques et Pharmaceutiques, IFR 133, Faculté de Médecine et de Pharmacie, Université de Franche-Comté, Place Saint-Jacques, 25030, Besançon, Cedex France.
Keywords: Cymbopogon citratus, Cymbopogon nardus, Cytotoxicity, Essential oil, HaCaT cell line
DOI: 10.3329/bjp.v4i1.1040


The leaf essential oils of Cymbopogon citratus L. and Cymbopogon nardus L. (Poaceae) from Togo were steam-distilled, analyzed for percentage composition and investigated in vitro for their potential cytotoxic activity on human epidermic cell line HaCat. The percentage composition showed that the main constituents of essential oils samples were respectively geranial (45.2%), neral (32.4%) and myrcène (10.2%) for C. citratus essential oil and citronellal (35.5%), geraniol (27.9%) and citronellol (10.7%) for that of C. nardus. The in vitro cytotoxicity bioassays on human epidermic cell line HaCaT revealed that the toxicity of the essential oil from C. citratus (IC50: 150 µL.mL-1) was higher than that of the essential oil from C. nardus (IC50: 450 µL.mL-1). Pure commercial neral, geranial, and citronellal standards showed respectively the following IC50 values: 100, 250 and 300 µL.mL-1). Conversely, pure citronellol standard appeared almost non-toxic (IC50>1000 µL.mL-1), proving the major role played in synergy by neral and geranial in the overall


During the last decades, chemists and biologists have been intensively investigating tropical and subtropical plants species with potential medicinal properties in order to assess the feasibility of developing natural, sustainable, and affordable drugs and cosmetics (Aké Assi and Guinko, 1991; Iwu, 2000; Orafidiya et al., 2001).

Cymbopogon citratus L. and Cymbopogon nardus L. essential oils, apart from their broad use in food or drinks, are widely involved in perfumery, body care products and soap manufacture. Also important is their pharmaceutical usage, which still remains under exploited especially in West Africa where these aromatic herbs are widely distributed.

Recently, particular attention has been given by researchers to the use of essential oils from tropical origin as active ingredients in various pharmaceutical formulations against some skin troubles (Orafidiya et al., 2001; Orafidiya et al., 2002) like human mycosis. Indeed, naturally occurring molecules of essential oils are more and more considered as valid additives to conventional antibiotherapies (Chaumont et al., 2001; Chaumont, 2003; Koba, 2003).

While intensive work is done to record the antimicrobial potential of plant essential oils and their other biological applications, some important works have been reported in the relevant literature regarding their possible cytotoxicity on human cutaneous cell lines (Foray et al., 1999; Hayes et al., 1999; Koba et al., 2007) and leukemia cells (Dubey et al., 1997a).

The objective of this paper was to investigate chemical composition and the in vitro cytotoxic potential of C. citratus and C. nardus essential oils. The assumption was made that these essential oils, commonly used or proposed for use in soap and body care and in different formulations to treat skin troubles like acnes and tinea in West Africa (Orafidiya et al., 2001; Orafidiya et al., 2002) may be toxic to the human epidermic cell line HaCaT. Hence the cytotoxicity evaluation of these volatile essential oils undertaken in this work constitutes one of the important steps prior to their possible exhaustive assessment for pharmaceutical use against superficial skin mycosis.

Materials and Methods

Plant material and volatile oils isolation

Aerial parts (leaves) of the tested plants were harvested in April 2005, from the experimental field of the Unité de Recherche sur les Agroressources et la Santé Environnementale at the Université de Lomé, Togo.

Plant material was identified by Prof. Akpagana at the Université de Lomé, where voucher specimens were stored in the herbarium respectively under references N'247 for C. citratus and 268 (K) for C. nardus.

A sample (50 g) of air-dried plant material was extracted by the hydrodistillation technique during 2 hours in a modified Clevenger-type apparatus (Craveiro et al., 1976). The extracted essential oils were stored in hermetically sealed dark glass flasks with rubber lids, covered with aluminium foil to protect the contents from light and kept under refrigeration at 4°C until use without any prior purification.

Essential oils analyses

Gas chromatographic analysis was carried out on a Varian 3300 type gas chromatograph equipped with FID detector. An apolar capillary column DB-5 (30 m x 0.25 mm i.d.; film thickness 0.25 µm) and on a polar column supelcowax 10 with the same characteristics as above mentioned were used. DB-5 column operating conditions were as follows: from 50°C (5 min), 50°C to 250°C at the rate of 2°C/min and Supelcowax 10 from 50°C (5 min), 50 to 200°C at 2°C/min. The injector and detector temperatures were  250 and 300°C respectively. The carrier gas was helium at a flow rate of 1.50 mL/min. Samples (0.2 µL) of undiluted essential oil were injected manually.

The GC/MS analysis was carried out on a Hewlett Packard 5890 SERIES II chromatograph, coupled with a mass spectrometer of the Hewlett Packard 5971 SERIES type operating in the EI mode at 70 eV. The capillary column type was DB5-MS (30 m x 0.25 mm i.d.; film thickness 0.25 µm). The amount of sample injected and GC/MS parameters were the same as above.

Identification of components

The components of oils samples were identified by their retention time, retention indices relative to C8-C24 n-alkanes, computer matching with Willet 275.L library and as well as by comparison of their mass spectra with the authentic samples  or with data already available in the literature (Kondjoyan and Berdagué, 1996; Adams, 2001).

The percentage of composition of the identified compounds was computed from the GC peak area without any correction factor and was calculated relatively.


Dubelcco's Modified Eagle's Minimum Essential Medium (DMEM), fetal calf serum (FCS), trypsin (0.25%) were from D. Dutscher (Brumath, France). 3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide (MTT), dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO), polyoxyethylene 20 sorbitan monoleate (Tween 80®), N-(2-hydroxyethyl)piperazine-N'-(2-ethanesulfonic acid) (HEPES), were purchased from Sigma-Aldrich (Saint Quentin Fallavier, France). Phosphate buffered saline (PBS) without calcium and magnesium was purchased from VWR International (Cergy-Pontoise, France). Pure neral, geranial, citronellal and geraniol from commercial origin were purchased from Sigma Chemical Co. (St. Louis, USA).

HaCaT cell culture

HaCaT, an immortalized human keratinocyte line was a generous gift from Nathalie Gault (Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique, Bruyère Le Châtel, France) (Boukamp et al., 1988; Gault et al., 2002). Cells were routinely grown in Costar plastic flasks in monolayer cultures in DMEM medium supplemented with 10% (v/v) FCS, and 5 M of HEPES + 80 mg.L-1 of gentamicin. They were grown in a humidified atmosphere of 5% CO2 in air. The medium was routinely renewed 2, 4 and 6 days after passage and when confluence was reached; cells were trypsinized and split for subcultures (seeding density 3,500 cells/cm2 in a 75 cm2 flask) or used for cytotoxicity assays. Cells were used for experiments within 10 passages to ensure cell line stability. All the experiments were carried out at 37°C.

Cytotoxicity assay

HaCaT cells were seeded at a density of 6 x 104 cells per well in 100 µL culture medium containing 10% FCS on 96 multi well culture plates and incubated overnight for adherence. The next day, the medium was removed and cells were incubated in FCS-free medium containing increasing concentrations (from 50 to 1,000 µL.mL-1) of C. citratus, C. nardus essential oils or their major components from commercial origin (Pure neral, geranial, citronellal  and geraniol) solubilized in 1/10 Tween 80® in culture medium (with <0.1% Tween 80® an ethanol vehicle). Each experiment was carried out in triplicate.

Determination of cell viability

After the exposure period, the reaction medium was removed and the adhering cells washed with PBS. One hundred microliter of MTT solution (0.5 g.L-1 in medium) was added to each culture well. After incubating for 4 hours at 37°C, the MTT reaction medium was removed and formazan-blue was solubilized in 100 µL DMSO. This assay is based on the reduction of yellow tetrazolium salt MTT by the mitochondrial succinate dehydrogenase to form an insoluble formazan-blue product. Only viable cells with active mitochondria reduce significant amounts of MTT (Mosmann, 1983) and formazan-blue formation absorbance was recorded in an ELX800 UV, universal microplate reader spectrophotometer at 570 nm. Values of absorbance were converted into percentage of residual viability. Usually, inhibition concentration 50% (IC50) is chosen as the best biological marker of cytotoxicity.

The inhibition (I) of the essential oils dilutions in percent was calculated as follows:

               I = (A0-A1/A0) x 100

Ao is the absorbance of the control reaction (containing all reagents except the tested compounds), and A1 the absorbance with the tested substances (crude essential oils or pure commercial component).

The IC50 value represented the concentration of the tested compounds or essential oils that caused 50% cells inhibition.

Result and Discussion

The light yellow essential oil of C. citratus and C. nardus were obtained in yields of 1.6 and 1.3% respectively, based on dried extracted material. The percentage composition of the studied oil samples are listed in Table I.

Table I: Chemical composition of C. citratus and C. nardus essential oils from Togo

Compounds Retention indices (RI) Peak area [%] of essential oils
C. citratus C. nardus
Monoterpene hydrocarbons   10.6 1.9
Myrcene 990 10.2 1.4
Limonene 1036 0.4 0.5
Oxygenated monterpenes   86.4 79
Methyl-5 epten-2one 986 0.4  
Sabinene hydrate cis 1076 0.3  
Citronellal 1153 0.2 35.5
α-Terpineol 1207 0.9 0.3
Citronellol 1226 0.3 10.7
Neral 1238 32.4 0.4
Geraniol 1253 5.5 27.9
Geranial 1267 45.2 0.7
Geranyl acetate 1381 1.2 3.5
Sesquiterpene hydrocarbons   1.8 12.3
β-Elemene 1388 1.4 5.1
á-Farnesene 1504 0.3 0.2
Bicyclogermacrene 1502 1.2 0.2
Germacrene D 1520 0.2 3.3
δ-Cadinene 1543   3.2
Oxygenated sesquiterpenes   1.4 2.7
Elemol 1550 0.6 0.1
β-Eudesmol 1651 0.2 0.2
Citronellyl tiglate 1658 0.1 2.1
γ-Eudesmol 1784 0.5 0.3
Total identified   99.8 95.9
Peak area percentage is based on apolar DB-5 column, and values represent average of three determinations; Retention index on apolar DB-5 column

Nineteen compounds were identified in the C. citratus oil sample representing 99.8% of the detected compounds that included geranial (45.2%), neral (32.4%) and myrcene (10.6%) as major components. This oil consisted of two monoterpene hydrocarbon (10.6%) and nine oxygenated monoterpenes (86.4%). This sample appeared similar to previous reports on oil chemotypes from Togo (Koumaglo et al., 1996; Koba et al., 2003) but it differed from that previously described in Cuba (Pino and Rosado, 2000) with geranial (52.3%), cis-pinocarveol (20.2%), neral (9.8%) and 1, 2-epoxide (3.6%).

Eighteen compounds were identified in the essential oil of C. nardus representing 95.9% of detected constituents including citronellal (35.5%), geraniol (27.9%) and citronellol (10.7%) as major components. This oil consisted of two monoterpene hydrocarbons (1.9%), seven oxygenated monoterpenes (79.0%), five sesquiterpene hydrocarbons (12.3%) and four oxygenated sesquiterpenes (2.6%). This composition was similar to previous reports on C. nardus oils from Togo (Koumaglo et al., 1996; Koba et al., 2003), but differed from those described in Thailand (Nakahara et al., 2003) with geraniol (35.7%), trans-citral (22.7%), cis-citral (14.2%) and geranyl acetate (9.7%) as major components, in India by Mahalwal and Ali (2003) with  citronellal (29.7%), geraniol (24.2%), γ-terpineol (9.7%) and cis-sabinene hydrate (3.8%) and different from those described in Bangladesh (Dugo et al., 1998) .

The sample of C. citratus essential oil was notably richer in citral (neral and geranial upper than 77%) than that of C. nardus (with only a total of 1.1% in citral).

The percentage of HaCaT cell viability and the IC50 values recorded for both tested essential oil samples and their four major constituents from commercial origin are shown in Table II.

Table II: In vitro viability of human skin cell line HaCat exposed to C. citratus and C. nardus essential oils and their four major constituents

Concentrations (µL/mL) Cell viability (%)
Essential oils Major constituents of essential oils
C. citratus C. nardus Neral Geranial Citronellal Geraniol
Control (0) 100.0 ± 0.0 100.0 ± 00.0 100.0 ± 00.0 100.0 ± 00.0 100.0 ± 00.0 100.0 ± 00.0
25 96.0 ± 1.7 97.3 ± 1.2 85.7 ± 1.2 95.7 ± 1.2 95.7 ± 1.2 98.7 ± 0.6
50 85.7 ± 1.2 93.0 ± 1.0 75.0 ± 00.0 85.0 ± 00.0 85.0 ± 00.0 104.0 ± 1.7
75 72.0 ± 2.0 85.3 ± 0.6 64.0 ± 1.0 76.0 ± 1.0 76.0 ± 1.0 108.7 ± 1.2
100 63.0 ± 1.0 80.7 ± 1.2 50.7 ± 0.6 66.0 ± 1.0 66.0 ± 1.0 110.7 ± 1.2
150 50.7 ± 0.6 77.0 ± 1.0 47.3 ± 0.6 58.0 ± 00.0 58.0 ± 00.0 114.3 ± 1.2
200 45.0 ± 1.0 68.3 ± 1.2 44.7 ± 0.6 53.7 ± 1.2 53.7 ± 1.2 116.0 ± 1.7
250 40.3 ± 0.6 64.0 ± 1.7 40.3 ± 0.6 50.3 ± 0.6 52.7 ± 0.6 119.3 ± 1.2
300 38.7 ± 0.6 57.7 ± 0.6 38.7 ± 0.6 47.3 ± 2.1 50.3 ± 1.5 125.3 ± 0.6
350 30.3 ± 0.6 54.7 ± 0.6 30.3 ± 0.6 45.3 ± 0.6 45.7 ± 0.6 129.3 ± 1.2
400 25.7 ± 0.6 52.3 ± 0.6 25.7 ± 0.6 36.0 ± 1.7 36.7 ± 1.5 134.3 ± 0.6
450 21.0 ± 1.0 50.0 ± 1.0 21.0 ± 1.0 31.0 ± 1.0 31.7 ± 0.6 137.7 ± 0.6
500 19.3 ± 1.2 45.7 ± 0.6 19.3 ± 1.2 24.7 ± 0.6 25.3 ± 0.6 140.3 ± 0.6
600 16.7 ± 1.5 42.3 ± 0.6 16.7 ± 1.5 21.7 ± 1.5 22.0 ± 1.0 142.7 ± 0.6
700 11.7 ± 1.5 38.0 ± 1.0 11.7 ± 1.5 15.7 ± 1.2 16.7 ± 0.6 144.7 ± 0.6
800 10.7 ± 1.2 35.3 ± 0.6 10.7 ± 1.2 15.3 ± 0.6 15.3 ± 0.6 147.3 ± 1.2
900 5.7 ± 0.6 31.3 ± 1.2 5.7 ± 0.6 10.7 ± 1.2 11.7 ± 1.5 150.3 ± 0.6
1000 4.7 ± 0.6 26.3 ± 1.5 4.7 ± 0.6 9.3 ± 1.2 10.7 ± 1.2 154.3 ± 1.2
Viability expressed as mean ± SD, n= 3

At lower concentrations in the range from 25 to 100 µL.mL-1, none of the six tested substances showed any cytotoxicity. Conversely, both tested essential oils induced significantly increased cell cytotoxicity, at higher concentrations ranging from 100 to 1,000 µL.mL-1. Two types of profiles were observed: (i) tested citratus and nardus oils and pure neral, geranial and citronellal standards showed cytotoxicity towards HaCaT with following respective IC50 values (150, 450, 100, 250 and 300 µL.mL-1) shown in Table II;  (ii) pure geraniol standard did not show any cytotoxicity up to 1,000 µL.mL-1 with cell viability up to 154%.

These experimental results demonstrated that, of the four major constituents of both tested essential oils, neral, geranial and citronellal were the most toxic for HaCaT cell line. Consequently, the cytotoxic effect of the essential oils of C. citratus and C. nardus found in this study was undoubtedly due to citral (neral and geranial), for the citratus oil, and to citronellal for that of nardus. Previous works only assumed what we experimentally established to a large extent in this investigation, but unfortunately authors did not provide any numerical data on the toxicity of the essential oils rich in citral which they used in high concentrations on human skin (Franchomme et al., 1996; Baudoux, 2002; Nakamura et al., 2003).  Citral in vitro cytotoxicity was established on leukemia cells (Dubey et al., 1997b). Apart from its inherent toxicity, some authors have reported that citral, a mixture of both geranial and neral stereoisomers, had a significant ability to suppress oxidative stress possibly through induction of the endogenous antioxidant glutathione system, providing a new insight into skin cancer (Nakamura et al., 2003). Besides, geraniol, as one of the main constituents of the nardus sample tested here, did not show any cytotoxicity. But it could probably expressed its potential as a cytoprotector or as an antioxidant in subsequent oxidative stress assays.


Our findings clearly showed that essential oils of C. citratus and C. nardus, with a percentage composition identical to our chemotypes, when used in appropriate doses, could be quite suitable as active components in pharmaceutical formulations for skin treatment and its damages repairing.


Authors wish to thank Université de Lomé and AUF (Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie) for financial support of this study.


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