Phototoxic Essential Oils

Some essential oils and plants are phototoxic. Why is that? How does it affect us? And what can we do about it?

phototoxicity essential oils

What is Phototoxicity?

First, what is the difference between phototoxicity, photosensitivity, and photoallergy? Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. Technically, a photosensitivity is the general term for heightened skin sensitivity or reaction when the skin is exposed to UV light. This term encompasses two types of reactions: phototoxicity and photoallergy.

Phototoxicity from essential oils occurs when compounds called furanocoumarins get between base pairs of DNA. They form what’s called a covalent bond, which crosslinks DNA. This creates inflammation, which creates a reaction. Swelling, redness, a sunburn, sometimes blisters in severe cases. Sometimes it can be delayed for a few days and change in skin colour can last for a few weeks. This is sometimes called phototoxic contact dermatitis, phytophotodermatitis.

Photoallergy is a type-4 hypersensitivity or immune response. UV light interacts with a substance that’s applied to the skin. This interaction creates a hapten or antigen. This generates T-cells, which meet this antigen and then causes a type 4 hypersensitivity. Where phototoxicity usually looks like a sunburn, photoallergy usually looks like eczema.

Some medications like antibiotics cause phototoxicity. Some sunscreen ingredients cause phototoxicity.

So what is the problem with phototoxicity? Essentially, certain essential oils increase the risk of sunburn.

So before we get too far, it’s important to clarify that this should not be taken lightly and we should protect the skin. We already know by now that we should protect our skin in the sunlight, not to use tanning beds, to wear sunscreen etc. Not only do we risk damaging our skin, but it also causes wrinkles. {Bad news!}

But it is also important to understand that this does not mean you can’t use essential oils. It means that we should educate, use caution, and protect the skin.

Phototoxic Essential Oils

So which oils cause this problem? The basic essential oils are citrus oils, with some exceptions, and there are other plants as well.

Phototoxic:

  • lemon, cold pressed
  • lime, cold pressed
  • grapefruit, cold pressed
  • bitter orange, cold pressed
  • bergamot, cold pressed
  • angelica
  • rue
  • tagetes
  • fig leaf
  • mandarin leaf
  • cumin

All of these oils should be used carefully, but bergamot and tagetes are major culprits. Don’t forget that blends containing these oils will also be phototoxic.

Lower Risk For Phototoxicity

  • clementine, cold pressed
  • combava,cold pressed
  • skimmia
  • angelica absolute
  • angelica CO2 extraction
  • celery leaf
  • celery seed absolute
  • cumin seed absolute
  • cumin seed CO2 extract
  • khella
  • lovage
  • parsnip

The Internet tends to lump all citrus oils into the mix as phototoxic, but it’s not the case. Steam distilled citrus oils are different than cold pressed and are not phototoxic. Citrus essential oils available are typically cold pressed versions, but check the label to verify.

Not Considered Phototoxic

  • lemon, steam distilled
  • lime, steam distilled
  • grapefruit, steam distilled
  • bitter orange, steam distilled
  • bergamot, steam distilled
  • sweet orange
  • mandarin
  • tangerine
  • yuzu
  • tangelo
  • petitgrain
  • neroli
  • furanocoumarin-free bergamot

Prevent a Reaction

Essential oils are often found in many skin care products and cosmetics. If this is not good for the skin, how do we prevent a reaction?

First, let’s talk about what does not have risk.

  1. Products that wash off the skin. Shampoos, body washes, soaps etc. Because they wash right off the skin, the components will not adhere to the skin.
  2. Properly diluted essential oils. It is possible to avoid the risk of phototoxicity in general by diluting essential oils at appropriate levels. Essential oils in soaps are more than likely to be properly diluted.
  3. Fully covered skin. It is possible to protect the skin with densely woven fabric. The UV rays will not be able to reach the area.

What does cause risk:

  1. Using soaps, washes, shampoos etc with relevant essential oils in a sauna. The heat might cause the oils to adhere to the skin, which will then create a risk of phototoxicity.
  2. Improper dilution. Most people do not know how to properly dilute essential oils. Further, it may be confusing to remember the varying percentages for specific oils and which citrus oils to avoid.

Therefore, follow these recommendations:

  1. Use caution with all citrus oils.
  2. Use caution with the remaining essential oils listed on the phototoxic lists.
  3. Wait a minimum of 12 hours after applying before going in UV light.
  4. Make sure the skin is fully covered.

Other Recommendations

  1. This can happen all year round, but pay particular attention in the summer months.
  2. Use a different oil where possible. If you know you’re going to be exposed, choose a different essential oil. There are many, many other options.
  3. If it’s the best unavoidable choice, use the essential oil at night and generally avoid using these oils on your face in the summer. Wait a minimum of 12 hours before going out into UV light. This includes sunlight and tanning beds.
  4. If you forget and you cannot avoid the UV light, then make sure the area is fully covered to protect your skin.
  5. Technically, we are more concerned about products applied to the skin, but ingesting it can increase the risk. So if you choose to ingest oils in water, sipping on water with lemon oil throughout the day can have a risk. Sometimes we see this with lime juice in margaritas for example, which is why this type of reaction is nicknamed margarita dermatitis. Juice and essential oils do not have the same chemical structures overall, but those compounds are still present, which can technically cause concern.

How to Handle a Reaction

  1. Immediately remove yourself from the sunlight or UV light. Get into the shade and preferably inside. If you can’t get into the shade, make sure your skin is thoroughly covered. No mesh cover-ups.
  2. Wash the skin thoroughly with mild soap and cold water. Rinse well.
  3. Dilute the skin with a carrier oil.
  4. Treat the reaction like you would treat a sunburn. Cool showers or baths, pat the skin dry carefully, and apply a moisturizer with real aloe or soy. Drink extra water. Make sure to keep the skin covered if you have to go back outside. If it becomes severe, or covers large areas of the skin, seek medical attention.

Phototoxicity is actually fairly uncommon. You will hopefully not make this mistake, but if you do, you will only do it once.

Make sure to read the labels of the products you’re using. Children are not exempt from the risk of phototoxic essential oils. It will cause the same reaction, so use extra care.

Citations

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