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Photosensitization and Phototoxic Essential Oils - What You Need to Know

SUMMER! Beach days, shorts, tank tops, and flip flops — here we come! But before you go and lather up your skin with all those DIY lotions, creams, lip balms, body oils, and perfumes you’ve had so much fun making, there is something very important that you should know: Phototoxicity.

So what IS phototoxicity?

The term ‘phototoxicity’ means that there are specific essential oils that when you put them on your skin and go out into the sun, can cause pretty significant damage, including severe burning, blistering, and discoloration. Yikes!

Not to worry! Even though phototoxicity isn’t something to take lightly, it’s also easy to avoid and keep yourself safe in the sun.

Phototoxicity, also called photosensitization and phototoxic contact dermatitis, is a UV light induced reaction to a photoactive substance.

Some essential oils are termed ‘phototoxic,’ since they increase the likelihood of a phototoxic reaction. These oils contain certain chemical constituents with a structure that gives them the ability to absorb UV light, store it, and release it in a burst into the skin.

Reactions can occur up to 18 hours after the oil has been applied to the skin and then exposed to UV light. So even if you don’t see a reaction right away, do not assume that a reaction won’t occur later. So be careful!

Phototoxic Essential Oils to be used with care:

  • Angelica Root (Angelica archangelica)

  • Bergamot* (Citrus bergamia, Citrus aurantium)

  • Grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi)

  • Lemon – cold pressed (Citrus x limon, Citrus limonum)

  • Lime* – cold pressed (Citrus x aurantifolia, Citrus x latifolia)

  • Mandarin Leaf (Citrus reticulata, Citrus nobilis)

  • Orange, Bitter (Citrus x aurantium)

  • Rue* (Ruta graveolens, Ruta montana)​

*see safe dilutions below

Robert Tisserand's book Essential Oil Safety has very useful guidelines for using citrus oils and avoiding phototoxicity. The information below is directly from Robert's book:

*Safe Use of Citrus Essential Oils Per Ounce of Carrier Oil:

Cold Pressed/Expressed Bergamot -- 2.4 drops (I just consider this 2 drops per oz) Cold Pressed/Expressed Lemon -- 12 drops per oz Cold Pressed/Expressed Lime -- 4.2 drops (I just consider this 4 drops per oz) Cold Pressed/Expressed Grapefruit -- 24 drops per oz

Did you know that some citrus essential oils are not phototoxic?

If you’ve been avoiding all citrus oils out of concerns over phototoxicity, you can still use a few citrus oils without worrying about potential phototoxic skin reactions.

Citrus oils can generally be used without phototoxic concern if you stay within the proper safety guidelines. But for many aromatherapists, client compliance can be an issue--and even with compliance, there may be exceptions (someone might have a phototoxic reaction to a citrus oil even when used in the safe dilutions offered below). Likewise, if you’re a beginner, you may be uncomfortable keeping track of the dilution guidelines needed to ensure that phototoxic oils aren’t posing an issue.

These citrus essential oils do not cause phototoxic reactions and can be used safely in products for the skin:

  • Mandarin (Green) Essential Oil Citrus reticulata

  • Steam-distilled Lime Essential Oil Citrus aurantifolia

  • Orange (Sweet) Essential Oil Citrus sinensis

If you love bright citrus aromas and the wonderful therapeutic properties of citrus essential oils, stock up on sun-safe citrus oils. Remember, all phototoxic oils can be used, as long as they're applied to areas of the skin that will not be exposed to the sun!

You may notice that these phototoxic oils are all cold-pressed. The distillation method is extremely important, since some of these oils can also be steam distilled. When distilled, the components that cause phototoxicity are not present, so they’re safe to use in the sun.

To avoid phototoxic reactions, cover any area of the skin with a phototoxic oil on it, or just don’t use a phototoxic essential oil topically if you are concerned about sun exposure.

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