Essential Oil & Sun Safety

Have you seen the buzz lately about essential oils and sun safety, mainly articles showing up on social media with alarming headlines but not much useful information inside? There's some misconceptions about this issue of essential oils (primarily citrus derived oils) and phototoxicity so let's dive in and separate fact from fiction.

First off, lets talk phototoxicity. What is it? How does it happen? How do essential oils cause it? Phototoxicity is a type of photosensitivity and is a chemically induced skin irritation, requiring light. This phenomenon is caused by a chemical substance (yes, even natural substances are chemicals) that's either ingested or put on the skin topically that is photoactive, meaning when it absorbs light, it produces molecular changes that cause toxicity. This toxicity many times shows up as an exaggerated sunburn but can cause blisters and serious burns. Some essential oils contain furocoumarins, a constituent that can cause phototoxicity. These molecules are structured in a way that allows them to form cross-links with skin cell DNA, which then makes skin susceptible to UV radiation. 

So which essential oils are most likely to cause photosensitivity/phototoxicity? Glad you asked. Here's a handy list: 

  • Angelica Root Essential Oil

  • Bergamot (Cold Pressed)

  • Bitter Orange (Cold Pressed)

  • Cumin

  • Fig Leaf Absolute

  • Grapefruit (Cold Pressed)

  • Lemon (Cold Pressed)

  • Lime (Cold Pressed)

  • Mandarin Leaf

  • Opopanax

  • Rue

  • Tagetes

Notice the (Cold Pressed) next to some of the oils? That's because when the same oil is steam distilled is changed the molecular structure and it does not typically cause phototoxicity. 

A misconception is that all citrus oils cause phototoxicity, which is false. Here is a list of citrus oils that are considered generally safe in the sun: 

  • Bergamot FCF (FCF Has the Bergaptene/Furanocoumarins Removed)

  • Bergamot (Steam Distilled)

  • Blood Orange (Cold Pressed or Steam Distilled)

  • Lemon (Steam Distilled)

  • Lime (Steam Distilled)

  • Mandarin (Cold Pressed or Steam Distilled)

  • Sweet Orange (Cold Pressed or Steam Distilled)

  • Petitgrain

  • Satsuma (Cold Pressed or Steam Distilled)

  • Tangelo (Cold Pressed or Steam Distilled)

  • Tangerine (Cold Pressed or Steam Distilled)

  • Yuzu Oil (Cold Pressed or Steam Distilled)

Even if your favorite oil is on the photosensitive list, don't despair! You can still enjoy it and the sunshine with some precautions. 

Dilute, Dilute, Dilute

I know this is not popular with (ahem) some essential oil enthusiasts, but unless you're treating a very acute issue, you should always be diluting your essential oils before putting them on your skin. Here's some guidelines from Robert Tisserand’s book Essential Oil Safety on diluting popular citrus oils for sun safety: 

Safe Use of Citrus Essential Oils Per Ounce of Carrier Oil:
Cold Pressed/Expressed Bergamot — 2.4 drops (I just consider this 2 drops per oz)
Cold Pressed/Expressed Lemon — 12 drops per oz
Cold Pressed/Expressed Lime — 4.2 drops (I just consider this 4 drops per oz)
Cold Pressed/Expressed Grapefruit — 24 drops per oz

Another solution is to only use the essential oil on areas of the body that will not be exposed to UV light and wear sunscreen when using any product that contains essential oils that may cause phototoxicity. ALWAYS WEAR SUNSCREEN. Sorry to yell at you, but it's only because I care. 

I hope that clears up any confusion and you can go on loving your citrus essential oils this Summer! 

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