Jan 30, 2018 11:55:40 AM | Aromatherapy and Essential Oils Essential Oil Safety: What is Photosensitivity?

Discover importance of essential oil safety and how photosensitivity impacts your skin. Learn which oils to avoid in the sun and tips for enjoying safely.

Are you itching to escape the winter doldrums to a sunny, warm climate? Us, too! Sunshine, swimming, and botanical walks—vacations to sunny places are full of opportunity for outdoor adventures. But if you love essential oils and natural products, it’s crucial to have a basic understanding of a key safety term: photosensitivity.

What is photosensitivity?

Defined loosely, photosensitivity is a process where a given chemical absorbs ultraviolet light and initiates a reaction, typically on the skin. A number of drugs and skin products are photosensitive and are labeled with cautions to avoid ultraviolet (UV) light from any source like sunshine or sun tanning beds. When you experience a photosensitive reaction, you could see redness, discoloration, or even blistering. 

But did you know that quite a few essential oils are photosensitive?

Certain essential oils, especially expressed citrus oils, can contain constituents such as furocoumarins, coumarins, and linalol/linalool, which are potential photosensitizers.

This means they can cause serious skin damage when exposed to the sun such as redness, itching, burns, blisters, and permanent skin discoloration. And that’ll definitely put a damper on your fun in the sun.

Some reactions to photosensitivity may not occur until several hours after application. Repeated exposure can even lead to long-term issues such as basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers or even more malignant changes such as melanoma.

Body Care Products & Photosensitive Essential Oils

Here are nine essential oils that can potentially cause a photosensitive reaction if they are used in products that are intended to stay on the skin such as a lotion, moisturizer, or sunscreen. While this list contains some oils you may not commonly use or see in products, it at least gives you an idea of which oils to leave behind if you’re planning a beach day. So, read your body care labels carefully. And don’t forget your SPF sunscreen! Protecting yourself from harmful rays is essential, whether you’re using products with essential oils or not. 

For body care products you make yourself (go DIYers!), make sure the use level in a leave-on-the skin product (e.g. lotion or body butter) is within the recommended maximum dilution percentage required by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). We’ve listed the recommended maximum use level for some of the most common photosensitive essential oils below:

Common Photosensitive Essential Oils

  • Angelica root Angelica archangelica (L.) (absolute and CO2 extract): Maximum use level 0.8%
  • Bergamot peel Citrus aurantium (L.) var. bergamia (note bergaptene-free or furocoumarin-free bergamot is not phototoxic; you see this listed as FCF or BF): Maximum use level 0.4%
  • Bitter orange peel (expressed) Citrus sinensis (Osbeck): Maximum use level 1.25%
  • Cumin seed Cuminum cyminum (L.): Maximum use level 0.4%
  • Grapefruit peel (expressed) Citrus paradisi (Macfad.): Maximum use level 4%
  • Lemon peel (expressed) Citrus limonum (Risso): Maximum use level 2%
  • Lime peel (expressed) Citrus aurantifolia (Christm.): Maximum use level 2%
  • Mandarin leaf (distilled) Citrus reticulata (Blanco) (mandarin leaf has a very low level of furocoumarins and IFRA does not give maximum use levels.)
  • Rue leaf (essential oil and absolute) Ruta graveolens (L.): Maximum use level 15%

When using photosensitive oils on your skin, avoid direct sunlight or UV light exposure for a minimum of 12 hours. Better yet, do not use these oils at all if there is any chance of being exposed to UV light. 

Okay, scary stuff aside, now you know why it's import to take extreme care when using photosensitive oils in topical applications. Here’s how:

Tips to Avoid a Phototoxic Reaction from Essential Oils

1. Wait approximately 12 hours after application before exposing skin to full sun.

2. If venturing outside before the 12-hour period is up, wear full-coverage clothing like long pants and sleeves.

3. Read the full label and list of ingredients on your lotions, skincare products, and topical medications—many products contain photosensitive oils.

4. If you experience a reaction, stop using the product and get out of the sun. Then, bathe the affected area with a carrier oil or full-fat milk. Remember, oil and water do not mix, so using a nonpolar substance like milk or oil is the best way to wash off the essential oil. If the skin irritation gets worse, contact your doctor immediately or call poison control at (800) 222-1222.

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This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent disease. This article has not been reviewed by the FDA. Always consult with your primary care physician or naturopathic doctor before making any significant changes to your health and wellness routine.

American College of Healthcare Sciences

Written By: American College of Healthcare Sciences

ACHS's mission is to lead the advancement of evidence-based, integrative health and wellness education through experiential online learning and sustainable practices. This includes sharing helpful, informative, holistic healthcare articles on the ACHS Health and Wellness Blog.