Here at Edens Garden, we love summer time. Like many, we associate summer with beach weather, cold lemonade, and backyard BBQs. In the essential oil world, nothing beats the aroma of citrus oils to evoke a summer sunshine mood. Knowing this, we at EG feel it is important to educate our customers on phototoxic oils. You might protect your skin against UV rays with sunscreen on a normal basis, so it’s important to know what other factors exist that could potentially harm your body while out in the summer sun.
Some essential oils contain molecules called furanocoumarins (FCs), which become activated following UV exposure. While not all FCs are phototoxic, there are a few to really look out for such as psoralen, methoxsalen, bergapten, and oxypeucedanin. When enough of these compounds are present in essential oils, exposure to sun rays can cause inflamed skin similar to a sunburn, and extreme blistering in severe cases.
These painful effects can peak 36-72 hours after UV exposure, followed by skin discoloration that can last for months. You may have experienced similar reactions if you have ever applied fresh lime or lemon juice to your skin before spending time in the sun. It’s also important to note that ingesting phototoxic essential oils can also put you at risk of burns when exposed to UV rays, although we never recommend ingestion.
The realm of phototoxicity and essential oils is not as straightforward as one would like. Citrus oils tend to be lumped together and thought of as phototoxic, but this is not always the case. FCs are found in many cold-pressed citrus oils, but not in their steam distilled versions. At the same time, certain cold-pressed oils are considered extremely phototoxic, while others are considered safe.
Some oils, like Bergamot, can have the bergapten significantly reduced (these are referred to as FCF, or furanocoumarin-free). There are also non-citrus oils that are considered phototoxic. It’s a lot to remember, we know. We recommend readingEssential Oil Safety by Robert Tisserand and Robert Young for more detailed information. To summarize, we’ve listed phototoxic oils, and oils that are mistakenly thought to be phototoxic.
Phototoxic Essential Oils
Potentially Phototoxic Essential Oils (use with caution)
Non-phototoxic Citrus Essential Oils (negligible risk)
Which EG Oils Are Phototoxic
Avoiding phototoxic risk doesn’t have to put a damper on your citrus-scented summer. Personal inhalers, diffusers, and diffuser jewelry are great ways to carry your favorite aromas around with you. If a topical application is preferred, Tisserand & Young recommend waiting 12-18 hours before exposing yourself to UV rays. Tanning beds should be avoided entirely. Reaching for the non-phototoxic versions of risky oils is always preferred as well.
Phototoxic oils in rinse-off products like body washes and shampoos are deemed safe. You can also apply the oils under appropriate clothing, although it is important to note that light clothing may not provide adequate protection.
There are also dilution rates that are considered “safe” for phototoxic oils. Any percentage higher than that listed is considered high risk:
Maximum Dilution Levels for Phototoxic Oils
Angelica Root: 0.8%
Bergamot (cold-pressed): 0.4%
Bitter Orange: 1.25%
Fig Leaf Absolute: no safe dilution
Key Lime: 0.7%
Lemon (cold-pressed): 2%
Lemon Verbena: no safe dilution
Lime (cold-pressed): 0.7%
Mandarin Leaf: 0.17%
Even with these safe dilution levels, we would recommend avoiding any unnecessary topical applications if UV exposure is expected. It’s important to note that these exact measurements can be difficult to calculate correctly. If you are unsure of the percentages of these oils in blends, it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid applying them topically before sun exposure. More than one potentially phototoxic oil in a single blend can also increase the risk for photosensitivity from each oil. As noted by Tisserand and Young, it’s also best to avoid these oils entirely if coupled with a high dietary consumption of grapefruit juice, celery, or parsnips.
Summertime is best enjoyed in a relaxed, carefree manner. We always encourage mindfulness and safety when using essential oils. Educating oneself is the key to avoiding adverse reactions. When used correctly, essential oils are a beautifully beneficial addition to any lifestyle.
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