Warm weather season is here! You got a call this morning from your friend who invited you and the kids to the beach for the day! Overjoyed to FINALLY get out in the sun after this long winter and rainy spring, you pack up your beach bag, get the kids suits on, and finally get yourself ready for the day. As you are about to head out the door, you apply the new citrus essential oil perfume you just made last week to your neck and wrists. Aaahhhhhh…..it smells like sunshine.
After a full day in the sun and your feet in the water, you are tired and ready for bed. As you are washing up, you notice that your neck has pink stripes all over and your wrists are itchy. After further investigation, you see a few small blisters on your neck too. What the heck? How did you get “sunburned” there, but not anywhere else?
Well…guess what….it is NOT a sunburn!
Did you know that some essential oils should be avoided in sunlight or UV rays?
That is a correct fact!
Do you know which ones to avoid?
Using some essential oils topically with sun exposure (or while in tanning beds) can actually damage the skin, making them photosensitive or phototoxic.
Why Do We Use Essential Oils Topically Anyway?
Topical application is a very effective method for applying essential oils. Because essential oils have low molecular weights and are lipid soluble, they easily penetrate the skin. Once absorbed, they stay in the applied area for a localized benefit.
What Does Photosensitivity Mean?
Everyday People Description: According to Essential Oil Safety, photosensitization (also knowns as photocontact dermatitis) is, “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 photoallergenic.”
Scientific Description: Photosensitization is the process in which ultraviolet (UV) radiation combines with a particular substance and causes chemical or biological changes. Some essential oils contain furocoumarins, a special class of constituent that can cause photosensitization of the skin. The most commonly found furocoumarins in essential oils are bergapten and oxypeucedanin. The chemical structure of these molecules (and their metabolites) allows them to form cross-links with skin cell DNA, in turn making the skin especially susceptible to UV radiation. During the process, free radicals and singlet oxygen are also formed and can inflict damage on cellular membranes, organelles, and proteins. If exposed to sunlight (which gives off UV radiation) after topical application of a photosensitive oil, the skin may become temporarily darkly pigmented, red, or irritated. Exposing photosensitive skin to sunlight can also increase risk for cancer.
***This blog will focus on the phototoxic reactions, because they are the most common.
Phototoxic Essential Oil Reactions
Phototoxicity happens when certain chemical constituents bind to DNA in the skin and then react with UV light, killing the cells and damaging tissues. These types of burns can show up anywhere from 1-24 hours after sun or UV exposure, cause anywhere from first to third-degree burns, and the resulting discoloration can last up to several months. Some other visible signs may be:
⟹ Severe redness
⟹ Darkening of skin
⟹ Edema (swelling)
Which Essential Oils Are Phototoxic?
Citrus oils are well known for causing phototoxic reactions, but even then it is not that cut and dry. How the oil is extracted makes a difference. Cold pressed or expressed citrus oils contain higher levels of the phototoxic constituents, while steamed distilled oils do not. Some expressed citruses are highly phototoxic (e.g., bergamot or lime), and some are relatively safe by themselves (e.g., sweet orange or mandarin). Though, when you blend these together, you increase your phototoxic risk, making it more convoluted. Separate from the citrus oils, there are a few others known to be phototoxic and there are yet a few more where the phototoxic risk is yet unknown.
Here are some of the known phototoxic or photosensitive essential oils that doTERRA has.
- Wild Orange
- Citrus Bliss
- Breathe (Lemon)
- Citrus Bliss (Bergamot, Lemon)
- Clary Calm (old version)
- Elevation (Tangerine)
- On Guard (Wild Orange)
- Purify (Lemon, Lime)
- Slim & Sassy (Lemon, Grapefruit)
- Whisper (Bergamot)
- Zendocrine (Wild Orange)
How to Use Them Safely
Wash-off products, such as shampoo or soaps, that are that are completely rinsed off the skin are considered safe techniques.
Citrus oils can generally be used without phototoxic concern if you stay within the proper safety guidelines. Here are some useful guidelines for using citrus oils and avoiding phototoxicity. This information is pulled directly from the Essential Oil Safety book.
Tisserand and Young recommend using four (4) drops total of any citrus fruit essential oil combination per 30 mL of a carrier oil as a safe general rule of thumb (Tisserand & Young, 2014).
Safe Dilution Levels:
Bergamot – 0.4% (2.4 drops per oz)
Grapefruit – 4% (24 drops per oz)
Lemon – 2% (12 drops per oz)
Lime – 0.7% (4.2 drops per oz)
Cumin – 0.4% (2.4 drops per oz)
Phototoxic reactions are fairly uncommon, but erring on the safe side this summer should be a priority. Avoid sunlight (UV light and tanning beds) for at least 12 hours after applying these oils to your skin. Do not include any of these oils in sun tanning lotions or creams, because it will not make you tan easier or faster.
IFRA Standards Library. (n.d.). Retrieved June 30, 2016
Tisserand, R. and Young, R. (2014). Essential Oil Safety (2nd ed.). London: Elsevier.