Learn about photosensitive essential oils and how to keep yourself safe when it is sunny outside. Don't let a fun day in the sun end with an essential oil disaster.
When certain essential oils are used topically on skin, and then that skin is exposed to sun light (or tanning beds), skin damage can occur. Being informed is the best way to avoid this.
What is Essential Oil Photosensitization?
Essential Oil Photosensitization (aka phototoxicity) can occur when certain natural essential oil constituents react when exposed to UV light. This kind of phototoxic damage to the skin can be permanent.
This reaction is also known as photocontact dermatitis: “a reaction to a substance applied to the skin that occurs only in the presence of UV light in the UVA range, and it may be either phototoxic or photo allergenic.” - Essential Oil Safety (2nd Ed) by Tisserand & Young, pg. 84
Essential oils containing furanocoumarins react to UV light and can cause an inflammatory response in the skin.
Signs of Essential Oil Phototoxic Reaction
Phototoxic reactions can occur up to 18 hours after the oil is applied topically to the skin and then exposed to UV light. Also keep in mind the risk of phototoxicity increases if you are putting several oils with photosensitizing properties in a blend.
- Exaggerated sunburn and blisters (most common reaction)
- Serious reddening of the skin may appear.
- Severe reddening and swelling with marked pigmentation changes may also occur.
- Pigmentation changes may be permanent or resolve slowly over time.
"Certain drugs, such as tetracycline, increase the photosensitivity of the skin, thus increasing the harmful effects of photosensitizing essential oils under the necessary conditions." -NAHA
Photosensitive Essential Oils
Here are the phototoxic oils that you should avoid applying topically if you will be in the sun. When properly diluted, you can use photosensitive essential oils in the sun without getting sunburned. I have included the recommended maximum dermal use levels to avoid phototoxic reactions.
You can read more about it in Essential Oil Safety (2nd Ed) by Tisserand & Young, page 84-88.
Angelica Root (Angelica archangelica)
0.8% - That's about 4.8 drops max of Angelica Root per 1 ounce of carrier oil to keep usage at a safe level.
Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)
0.4% - That's about 2.4 drops max of Bergamot per 1 ounce of carrier oil to keep usage at a safe level.
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)
0.4% - That's about 2.4 drops max of Cumin per 1 ounce of carrier oil to keep usage at a safe level.
Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi)
4% - That's about 24 drops max of Grapefruit per 1 ounce of carrier oil to keep usage at a safe level.
Laurel Leaf Absolute (Laurus nobilis)
2% - That's about 12 drops Laurel Leaf Absolute per 1 ounce of carrier oil to keep usage at a safe level.
Lemon expressed (Citrus limon)
2% - That's about 12 drops Lemon per 1 ounce of carrier oil to keep usage at a safe level. If you buy distilled lemon it is not phototoxic.
Lime expressed (Citrus aurantifolia)
0.7% - That's about 4.2 drops Lime per 1 ounce of carrier oil to keep usage at a safe level. If you buy distilled lime it is not phototoxic.
Bitter Orange expressed (Citrus sinensis)
1.25% - That's about 7.5 drops Bitter Orange per 1 ounce of carrier oil to keep usage at a safe level.
Mandarin Leaf (Citrus reticulata, Citrus nobilis)
0.17% - That's about 1 drop Mandarin Leaf per 1 ounce of carrier oil to keep usage at a safe level.
Fig Leaf Absolute (Ficus carica)
High risk, no safe maximum dermal use level. Fig leaf absolute should not be used, either internally or externally, due to its extreme phototoxic and sensitizing potential.
Rue (Ruta graveolens)
0.15% - That's less than 1 drop Rue per 1 ounce of carrier oil to keep usage at a safe level.
There are a few more essential oils that are possibly phototoxic according to Tisserand & Young:
- Combava Fruit Oil
- Skimmia Oil
- Angelica Root Absolute
- Angelica Root CO2 extract
- Celery Leaf Oil
- Celery Seed Absolute
- Cumin Seed Absolute
- Cumin Seed CO2 extract
- Khella Oil
- Lovage Leaf Oil
- Parsnip Oil
How to Avoid Photosensitization
There are some ways to safely use these oil, here are a few suggestions.
1. Use Aromatically Instead
- The simplest way to avoid photosensitization is by not applying the phototoxic oils to the skin. This may seem extreme but you can enjoy these oils aromatically instead. Use the oils in a diffuser, on an aromatherapy inhaler, or on an essential oil diffuser necklace.
2. Dilute Properly
- Photosensitive essential oils can still be used safely on the skin, even with exposure to UV light, as long as they are properly diluted. See the recommended amount listed for each oil above.
3. Enjoy in Wash Off Recipes
- It is still OK to use these phototoxic essential oils in hand soaps, body washes, and other DIY Recipes that are washed off. This would not include soaking in a bathtub since your skin is in contact for longer periods of time, as opposed to a wash-off product.
“There is generally no phototoxic risk if the oils are used in a product that is either not applied to the body or is washed off the skin, such as shampoo, bath preparation, or soap. However, essential oils can adhere to the skin if used in a sauna or steam inhalation.” - Essential Oil Safety (2nd Ed) by Tisserand & Young, pg. 88
4. Avoid the Sun
- Avoid any UV light for 12-18 hours after you apply the oil to exposed skin. Have a great skin care recipe that you love to use with grapefruit or lemon? Try to apply in the evening time.
5. Cover Up
- Covering up any skin where photosensitive essential oils have been applied topically can help avoid a phototoxic reaction. Just be sure the fabric offers adequate protection, a thin T-shirt may not be enough.
"There is no risk if the skin to which the oils are applied is covered in such a way as to prevent UV rays from reaching them." -Essential Oil Safety by Tisserand & Young, pg. 88
6. Use Essential Oils that are Sun Safe
- There are many essential oils that can be substituted for these phototoxic oils. Try a different oil that is not on the phototoxic list but has similar actions or aroma that you desire.
- While cold pressed (expressed) Lime and Lemon essential oils are phototoxic, if they are steam distilled, they lack the component that causes sun sensitivity and therefore are not phototoxic.
"The furanocoumarins are relatively non-volatile molecules and are generally found in expressed (cold-pressed) citrus fruit oils, but not in distilled citrus fruit oils." - Essential Oil Safety (2nd Ed) by Tisserand & Young, pg. 85
- This is really great news! You can still use Lime and Lemon essential oils as long as they are steam distilled and not have to worry about sun exposure. Plant Therapy offers distilled Lime and distilled Lemon, check them out:
Steam Distilled Lime Essential Oil
Steam Distilled Lemon Essential Oil
- Bergamot can be purchased with the Bergaptene content (Furocoumarin) removed. It is called Bergamot FCF essential oil (FCF: Furanocoumarin Free). Rocky Mountain Oils has this variation available, check it out:
Bergamot FCF Essential Oil
Sun Safe Citrus Essential Oils
Many people are misinformed about citrus oils, not all citrus essential oils are phototoxic. There are several that are safe to use in the sun.
- Bergamot FCF - bergapten-free/furanocoumarin-free (Citrus bergamia)
- Steam Distilled Lemon (Citrus limon)
- Steam Distilled Lime (Citrus x aurantifolia)
- Mandarin (Citrus reticulata)
- Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis)
- Tangerine (Citrus reticulata, Citrus nobilis, Citrus tangerine)
Featured DIY Recipe- Sun Safe Citrus Blend
Here is a cheerful citrus blend that contains only sun safe essential oils. The trio of oils is uplifting and a perfect scent to enjoy on a warm and sunny day.
Directions: Add drops of essential oils to pump bottle, fill the rest of the bottle with jojoba. Shake to blend. To use, squirt a pump of oil and rub onto the desired area. 2% dilution level.
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