Phototoxic essential oils accelerate and intensify burning when exposed to sunlight. Let’s examine phototoxicity in citrus oils and other essential oils.
When I began my herbalism journey, one of my first lessons was that all citrus oils are phototoxic. This means that applying the oils to the skin just before going out into the sun can speed an intensify burning. But, with more studying, I now understand that you can safely use some citrus oils in skincare products applied before sun exposure.
What is Phototoxicity?
Phototoxicity occurs when you apply certain essential oils to the skin just before exposure to sunlight. This happens when certain chemical constituents bind to DNA in the skin and then react with sunlight, damaging skin tissue in the form of sunburn. Phototoxic burns can show up within a few hours after sun exposure and tanning bed exposure. These reactions also have several other names, including margarita photodermatitis or bar rot, since similar burns can occur from cutting fresh limes or contacting fresh lime juice prior to sun exposure.
Phototoxic Essential Oils
Most, but not all, of the phototoxic essential oils are in the citrus family:
- Bergamot essential oil
- Grapefruit essential oil
- Bitter Orange essential oil
- Cold Pressed Lemon essential oil
- Cold Pressed Lime essential oil
- Tagetes Essential Oil
- Angelica Root Essential Oil
- Cumin essential oil can also cause similar reactions
Non-Phototoxic Citrus Oils
You can use these citrus oils safely, even with sun exposure:
- Orange essential oil-Wild or Sweet
- Mandarin (Tangerine) essential oil
- Steam Distilled Lemon essential oil
- Steam Distilled Lime essential oil
- Neroli essential oil
- Petitgrain essential oil
High and Low-Risk Mediums
Products like bar soap, liquid soap, and bath bombs represent the lowest risk because you rinse them off immediately. There is a slight lingering effect on the skin but not usually enough to make a difference. Products such as creams and lotions are the highest risk products as these remain on the skin. Products like facial toner can go either way as the product does come off the skin, but some of the oil may be absorbed into the skin. So use these last two with caution.
My Favorite Essential Oil is Phototoxic
I really love grapefruit essential oil, but I know it is phototoxic and I can’t use it if I’m going out in the sun. I don’t want to risk burning, so what can I do?
Use at Night
One thought is to use these products at night. There are zero risks of being exposed to sunlight at night unless you live in the Arctic Circle. I have a facial toner that has grapefruit essential oil that I use for my oily skin, but I only use it at night.
Another idea is to use a sunscreen with the citrus oil product. Apply the facial toner, then to use a sunscreen before applying makeup, or use a make up base with sunscreen in it. Or, you can apply the cream or lotion and wait a few hours. Depending on what the oil concentration is, and most products run under 5% of the total volume, this can be a few hours to 12 and up to 48 hours. In general, the less of the essential oil, the less of a phototoxic risk.
You can minimize the risk of phototoxicity by using different oils, using the products at night, or waiting a few hours after use.
What are your favorite phototoxic essential oils?