Let’s define what essentials oils are look at the list of phototoxic essential oils
Photo-toxic: Makes skin more vulnerable to damage when exposed to sunlight
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are mother nature’s gift shipped in small bottle. The oils have been extracted from aromatic plants for centuries for all kinds of usage and properties, from medicinal purposes to cosmetics applications.
With industrialisation and shift in habits of consumption to our new era wanting all natural, the shortcut is to think that all things natural must be good for our health but that is not true.
The plants carry their own chemicals which need to be carefully considered before being used. Also, applying the right dosage is another important element as too much of good things can also be harmful. Most are used with carrier oils as essential oils tend to be very potent.
The lovely scent of citrus oil has the power to put you in a good mood and remind you of the summer time. On the other hand, whilst Sunshine and the scent of lovely citrus seem to go well together; it is not the case. Some types of citrus essential oils can react from the exposure to the sun. This phenomenon is called phototoxicity.
What is Phototoxicity?
Some essential oils become harmful and toxic when exposed to direct sunlight.
While they are fine with usage for candles, they should be avoided on the skin.
Using them in soap, shampoo, body scrubs or bath preparation or anything you would rinse off should be ok but avoid in creams, lotions or balms as it stays on the skin.
Phototoxic essential oils contain chemicals (e.g Furocoumarins – FCs) which will be activated when exposed to sun or ultraviolet light. These chemicals form a group of substances that bind to the DNA in the skin cells. Photoxity brings on inflammation and other skin damage such as blistering or third-degree burns. The reaction on the skin can appear up to 24 hours after exposure and last for days if not weeks. Discoloration can also last up to several months
Not all Furanocoumarins are phototoxic but the followings are: Psoralen, Bergapten, Methoxsalen, and Oxypeucedanin (non-exhaustive list).
Many citrus fruits and some plants contain furocoumarins. Few citrus fruits don’t contain furocoumarins, though.
For example, Lemon and Lime essentials oils are highly phototoxic while mandarin and Orange Essentials oils aren’t.
Essential oils extraction
It also depends which part of the plants the essential oil is extracted from. Leaves and flowers contain much less furocoumarins than the fruit peels, so much less phototoxic. It is the case for bitter orange tree but not for mandarin which is an exception since the leaves contain higher level of furocoumarins than the fruits
Cold pressed citrus oils are the most phototoxic oils however not all citrus oils are phototoxic and some non citrus oil can be.
Also some of the citrus oils processing methods, such as steam distillation, instead of cold pressing, can lower the level of furanocoumarins significantly. Check for the following labels for safe essentials oils bottle: “furocoumarins free (FCF)”, “Steam distilled”, or bergapten free
Tisserand & Young recommends waiting 12 to 18 hours before sun or UV exposure. Also, avoid tanning beds as much as possible.
Also note that blending these oils together can increase their phototoxicity. Even those ones that are known to be safe on their own such as sweet orange or madarin. Avoid drinking grapefruit juice or consuming celery or parsnips at the same time of these EO application
Some recommendations if you still want to use them:
- Check their labels and chemical composition before using, diluting, blending and applying
- Prefer the non-phototoxic versions of the essential oils as much as possible (steam distilled ones rather than cold pressed ones)
- Cover and protect the skin (prefer thick clothes) from the sun or UV exposure in the 18 to 24 hours after the application.
List of phototoxic essential oils
- Angelica Root Absolute
- Angelica Root C02
- Bergamot (Unless specified Bergapten Free)
- Bitter Orange
- Celery Leaf
- Celery seed absolute
- Combava fruit
- 1- Cumin
- 2- Cumin Seed Absolute
- 3- Cumin Seed C02
- Fig Leaf absolute
- Key LIme
- Lovage Leaf
- Mandarin Leaf
- Orange (unless “folded” orange)
This is not an exhaustive list and should serve as a starting point of reference only. If you would like to go ahead and use them, please make sure to make your research and seek expert guidance for your safety. Dilution of essential oils are a must for most of them, and should not be applied directly onto the skin
Tisserand, R. and Young, R., Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals