Essential Oils and Sun Safety

Summer Sun

Image courtesy of isox4 at flickr.com

When using essential oils on your skin you may not think that you have to worry about sun exposure, but with some oils you do. There is a reaction called phototoxicity that is a response the skin has when certain essential oil components react to UV light. It shows up as an irritation similar to an awful sunburn and can include inflammation, blisters and darkening of the skin.

An article on aromaweb.com states “Citrus oils, as a group, are generally considered to be phototoxic. However, not all citrus essential oils are phototoxic, and the method of extraction can play a part for some oils. For example, Sweet Orange and Blood Orange Essential Oils are not phototoxic, but Bitter Orange Essential oil is. Cold pressed Lime Essential Oil is phototoxic, but steam distilled Lime Essential Oil is not.”

It can be difficult to decide which essential oils to use in a skin preparation, especially as some citrus oils cause phototoxicity and others do not. To add to the confusion, there are some phototoxic oils that aren’t in the citrus family, such as angelica root and tagetes, but they aren’t commonly used oils so they are not of much concern.

Another issue is that phototoxicity can occur up to 24 hours after the skin with the essential oil on it has been exposed to ultraviolet light. And, if the skin does get a reaction, the “burn” can last for many months.

Is the answer to avoid all citrus oils just to be on the safe side? No. If a phototoxic oil is not used on the skin or the skin will be covered, then there is no worry. Essential Oil Safety says that “there is generally no phototoxic risk if the oils are used in a product that is either not applied to the body or is washed off the skin, such as shampoo, bath preparation or soap. … There is no risk if the skin to which the oils are applied is covered in such a way as to prevent UV rays from reaching them.”

So, when in doubt, find a good source to check if an oil you are using on the skin is phototoxic. If it is, keep in mind that the skin should be shielded from the sun or tanning beds for a day. And, use common sense. Do not get a massage outside by the pool using a body oil containing Bergamot (the most phototoxic essential oil). If you are looking for a citrus scent, choose Sweet Orange instead. Your skin will be happy you did.