Essential Oils and Sun Exposure (phototoxicity)

When using essential oils there are some safety issues to keep in mind, one of which is using certain oils in the sun. These oils can increase your risk of sun burn and can be a serious side effect of using these oils. The burn can be mild or quite severe depending on exposure. There are ways to reduce this risk when using these oils so as to not have more burns and damage to the skin. What is phototoxicity? Phototoxicity is an increase in skin risk from the sun, certain medications can cause this as well. Signs of phototoxicity are:

  • Severe redness (sunburn)
  • edema (swelling)
  • darkening skin color
  • blistering

List of essential oils that increase phototoxicity:

  • 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)

There are some recommendations for using some of these essential oils in low dilution ratios and still be considered safe for sun exposure. A couple of these, Lime, Steam Distilled, and Bergamot,  furanocoumarin free, can also be distilled in a way that removes the risk of damage or phototoxicity. You can use Lemon oil in a very low amount, max 12 drops of lemon to 1 ounce of carrier oil or butter and still be within a safe range. Cold pressed Lime is 4 drops per 1 ounce of carrier or you can choose to only use the distilled lime and avoid the risk. These safety recommendations come from the Essential Oil Safety book by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young. It is a fabulous resource book and have tons of valuable information in it. You can find it on Amazon for more information.

The essential oils that increase photoxicity can increase the risk for about 18 hours so I recommend using caution for 24 hours after use. Applying under clothing can reduce the risk as the skin is not exposed or choosing to use Sun Safe oils might be a better option during those times when you will be exposed to the sun for a period of time. Sun Safe Essential Oils:

  • Bergamot – steam distilled – bergapten-free/furanocoumarin-free* (Citrus bergamia, Citrus aurantium)
  • Lemon -steam distilled (Citrus x limon, Citrus limonum)
  • Lime – steam distilled (Citrus x aurantifolia, Citrus x latifolia)
  • Mandarin – cold pressed (Citrus reticulata)
  • Orange, Sweet – cold pressed (Citrus sinensis, Citrus aurantium var. sinensis)
  • Tangerine – cold pressed (Citrus reticulata, Citrus nobilis, Citrus tangerine)

Using these oil options takes the guess work out and allows you to have some of the wonderful benefits of using especially citrus oils in your blends without the risk. I love to use Tangerine, Mandarin and Sweet Orange in my citrus lotion because they smell heavenly but do not create a sunburn risk as using the wrong version of Lemon or Lime might. Try creating a blend to relax and uplift using 2 drops Cedarwood, 2 drops Sweet Orange, 2 Lavender, 2 drops Tangerine added to 1 ounce of carrier oil, my choice is always Organic Jojoba, it's my fave ;) and enjoy the beautiful fruity top notes to boost you day! 

I actually used a brand of organic lotion for about 2 years and kept getting all these sunburns, now I can be pretty pale lol so not totally surprising but it became a major issue. I could not go out for 20 minutes without getting red and if I went to a soccer game even with sunscreen I still would get burned. I really started to worry about my skin cancer risk. I didn't realize at the time, this was before I did my aromatherapy certification training, so I would use it and not know it was what caused my burns. Once I realized certain oils can be a risk factor I started reading my moisturizer labels and lotion and realized that was the culprit. Since being very cautious and discerning about what oils I apply topically that has stopped happening unless I just have too much sun so I urge you to consider this as a factor if you are using oils in sun and then getting burned.

Have you ever gotten a burn or sun reaction and figured out later it was because you had used a photosensitizing oil? What are your favorite oils to substitute for the phototoxic oils?

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