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Safety First: Essential Oils and Phototoxicity

I believe in the therapeutic properties of herbs, plant extracts and essential oils. I love that I can share my experiences and recipes.

Photoirritants can cause rashes.

Photoirritants can cause rashes.

What Is Phototoxicity?

Phototoxicity, also known as photosensitivity, photo contact dermatitis, or photo irritation, is an inflammatory skin reaction caused by exposing the skin to an irritant. If you expose your skin to UV light (including tanning beds) after applying certain essential oils, the skin can become irritated. Reactions can appear up to 24 hours after application. This group of essential oils contains furanocoumarins, such as bergapten, which reacts to UV light. Damage to the skin could be permanent because the skin is exposed to a chemically induced skin irritant.

Symptoms of Phototoxicity On the Skin

  • Redness
  • Burning
  • Itching
  • Blistering
  • Skin discoloration
  • Inflammation
  • Scaly patches
  • Raised skin
  • Rash

Phototoxic Essential Oil Alternatives

It’s not all bad news though. You can safely use any essential oil if you know how.

For example, a phototoxic essential oil such as cold pressed lemon is not recommended in a face or body cream, but it’s wonderful in diffusers, nasal inhalers, cleaning products or candles.

Another deciding factor is extraction.

For example, cold pressed lime peel essential oil is phototoxic but steam distilled lime peel oil is not. Bergamot essential oil is phototoxic but if it is bergaptene free, then it is not.

The secret to successful essential oil use is to know your oils. It only takes a few minutes to search your ingredients online to ensure that you get the most out of your DIY selfcare product.

Use Caution with Citrus Essential Oils

The biggest phototoxic culprits are cold pressed citrus essential oils. However, not all citrus oils cause phototoxicity. Examples of safe citrus essential oils include – Bergaptene free bergamot, steam distilled lemon or mandarin. Please refer to the tabulated list below for more options.

  • If you have used any photosensitive oils on your skin, avoid the sun, tanning beds and UV light for at least 12 to 18 hours. This applies to products that remain on the skin such as creams or serums.
  • If you use a product such as shampoo or a bath product that washes off, you will generally be safer since the product is washed off.
  • If you use one of these oils in a steamer for the face or in a sauna, the oils particles will make contact with the skin. Consider taking a shower to remove any residue or stay away from UV light.
Citrus Essential Oils

Citrus Essential Oils

What to Consider When Using Phototoxic Essential OIls

  • If you apply a product that contains a photosensitive oil, stay away from UV light for a minimum of 12 hours. A facial night cream is a good example here. Keep in mind that some sensitive skin types could still become irritated up to 24 hours after application.
  • If you must go out in the sun, make sure that you cover the skin where the potentially photosensitive cream was applied.
  • If you experience any irritation, wash it off and stop using the product.
  • Always read the ingredients on products before applying them to the skin.
  • If the irritation worsens call your doctor.
  • If your skin is irritated, dip a washcloth in whole milk and lay it on the affected area. The high fat and protein concentration in whole milk will soothe the burn and promote healing.
  • If you take prescription medication, do some research before using any essential oil products. Some medications such as tetracycline may increase your skin’s sensitivity to UV light.
  • Always dilute essential oils in a carrier oil, cream, or lotion. This applies to phototoxic and non-phototoxic essential oils.
  • Photosensitivity is still a factor in winter because the sun’s ultraviolet rays still reach us.
  • If you love lemon or lime in your body cream, consider using steam distilled versions instead of the cold-pressed citrus essential oils. The table below offers several alternative aroma options.
Be Careful of What You Wear in the Sun

Be Careful of What You Wear in the Sun

Phototoxic and Non-Phototoxic Essential Oils

The list below includes all phototoxic essential oils in the citrus category.

There are a few essential oils in other categories like cumin essential oil that are also phototoxic. I have included these in the list.

Also included are all the non-phototoxic essential oil alternatives.

Known phototoxic essential oils and absolutes in all categoriesEssential oils that may be phototoxic or are mildly phototoxic in all categoriesNon phototoxic essential oils in all categories

Angelica Root

Angelica Root Absolute

Angelica Root (Himalyan)

 

Angelica Root Co2

 

 

Bergamot (Cold pressed)

FCF bergamot (FCF Has the Bergaptene/Furanocoumarins Removed)

Cumin

Cumin Seed Absolute

 

 

Cumin Seed Co2

 

 

Combava Fruit

 

 

Celery Leaf

 

 

Celery Leaf Absolute

 

 

Clementine (Cold pressed)

 

Fig Leaf Absolute

 

 

 

Grapefruit (Cold pressed)

Grapefruit (Steam distilled)

 

Khella

 

Lemon (Cold pressed)

 

Lemon (Steam distilled)

 

 

Lemon Leaf

Lime (Cold pressed)

 

Lime (Steam distilled)

 

Lovage Leaf

Lovage Root

 

 

Lovage Seed

Mandarin Leaf

 

Mandarin (Cold pressed or steam distilled)

Opopanax

 

 

Orange (Bitter) (Cold pressed)

 

Orange (Blood) (Cold pressed or steam distilled)

 

 

Orange Leaf (Also known as Petitgrain)

 

 

Orange (Sweet) (Cold pressed or steam distilled)

 

 

Orange Flower

 

Parsnip

 

 

 

Petitgrain

Rue

 

 

 

Skimmia

 

 

 

Satsuma (Cold pressed or steam distilled)

Tagetes

 

 

Tagetes absolute

 

 

 

 

Tangelo (Cold pressed or steam distilled)

 

 

Tangerine (Cold pressed or steam distilled)

Verbena (Lemon)

 

Verbena (Honey)

 

 

Verbena Absolute

 

 

Yuzu (Cold pressed or steam distilled)

Poison Control Contact

United States

(If you or someone you know may have been exposed to a dangerous substance, contact poison control immediately at 1-800-222-1222 or go to poisonhelp.org for assistance.)

Sources

National Cancer Institute

https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/phototoxicity

Aromahead Institute

https://blog.aromahead.com/2010/03/22/citrus-essential-oils-avoiding-phototoxicity

Aromahead Institute

https://blog.aromahead.com/2017/07/27/phototoxic-essential-oils-safe

Plant Therapy

https://blog.planttherapy.com/blog/2018/05/26/what-is-phototoxicity/

Herbal Academy

https://theherbalacademy.com/truth-phototoxic-essential-oils-use-safely/

Tisserand, Robert, and Young, Robert. 2014. Essential Oil Safety. Second Edition.

Wilson, Celeste. Isla Verde Spa Training Academy Certificate of Aromatherapy Course.

Wilson, Celeste. National Higher Certificate in Beauty Therapy. The Durban University of Technology.

Worwood, Valerie Ann. The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy. 25th Anniversary Edition.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Celeste Wilson

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