Essential Oil Risk: Phototoxicity

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Essential Oil Risk: Phototoxicity

Two weeks ago, I read an online article about a woman who had second and third-degree burns after applying essential oil to her skin right before going in a tanning bed. It turned out she got a phototoxic skin reaction from the essential oil. Sadly, there are several people like her who are not even aware of this kind of risk so allow me to explain it in more details.

Aside from the usual skin sensitization, another common risk associated to the improper use of essential oil is photosensitization.

What is Photosensitization?

In the book Essential Oil Safety, photosensitization is defined as “a reaction to a substance applied to the skin that occurs only in the presence of UV light in the UVA range, and it may be either phototoxic or photoallergic” (Tisserand & Young, 2014, p. 84). In other words, photosensitization happens when you apply essential oils on your skin that contain chemical compounds that will react to UV light, whether natural (e.g. sunlight) or artificial (e.g. tanning bed). Between the two types of photosensitization, phototoxicity is the most common in essential oils.

In reality, there is really nothing wrong with using phototoxic essential oils on skin. However, the one thing that makes it harmful is when you expose your skin to sunlight or tanning bed right after the application of the phototoxic essential oils that are not safely diluted according to its maximum dermal limit.

It’s also important to note that the risks associated to phototoxic essential oils are only applicable if applied topically on the skin. There is no phototoxic risks if the essential oils are not applied on the body (e.g. inhaler) or are washed-off from the body (e.g. shower gel). On the other hand, risks can still occur if phototoxic essential oils are used in sauna or steam inhalation as those tiny droplets of oils emitted into the air can stick to the skin (Tisserand & Young, 2014).

Essential oils containing a chemical compound called furanocoumarin are notorious for being phototoxic. Furanocoumarin is often found in citrus fruit essential oils (e.g. bergamot, lime) but this does not mean that all citrus fruit essential oils are phototoxic. In fact, cold-pressed (expressed) citrus fruit essential oils tend to be more phototoxic compared to their steam-distilled version.

The following table lists essential oils (citrus and non-citrus) that are phototoxic.

ESSENTIAL OIL
LATIN NAME
MAX. DERMAL USE LEVEL
Angelica Root
Angelica glauca
0.8%
Bergamot
Citrus bergamia
0.4%
Cumin
Cuminum cyminum
0.4%
Fig Leaf Absolute
Ficus carica
No safe level
Grapefruit (cold-pressed)
Citrus paradisi
4%
Lemon (cold-pressed)
Citrus limon
2.0%
Lemon Verbena
Aloysia triphylla
No safe level
Lime (cold-pressed)
Citrus aurantifolia
0.7%
Mandarin Leaf
Citrus reticulata
0.17%
Orange (bitter, cold-pressed)
Citrus x aurantium
1.25%
Rue
Ruta graveolens
0.15%
Taget oil or absolute
Tagetes minuta
0.01%
Table Source: Tisserand & Young, 2014, p. 86 - 87

The following table lists non-phototoxic citrus fruit and leaf essential oils.

ESSENTIAL OIL
LATIN NAME
Bergamot (FCF/Bergapten-free)
Citrus bergamia
Lemon (steam distilled)
Citrus limon
Lemon Leaf
Citrus limon
Lime (steam distilled)
Citrus aurantifolia
Grapefruit (steam distilled)
Citrus paradisi
Mandarin or Tangerine
Citrus reticulata
Petitgrain (Orange Leaf)
Citrus x aurantium
Sweet Orange
Citrus sinensis
Yuzu
Citrus junos
Table Source: Tisserand & Young, 2014, p. 87

What are the Symptoms of Phototoxicity?

Phototoxic skin reaction to essential oils can start to show up within 24 hours after sun exposure with the following symptoms:
  • Sunburn (can be first to third-degree burns)
  • Skin rashes (may or may not cause itching)
  • Blisters
  • Skin pigmentation (discoloration) that may last for weeks or months
The severity of phototoxic skin reactions vary for each person and is directly proportional to the amount of phototoxic essential oil used and the duration of sun exposure.

How to Avoid Phototoxicity When Using Essential Oils?

The safest way to avoid phototoxicity is to not use phototoxic essential oils on skin. However, if you really love the smell of citrus fruit essential oils on your skincare products, then here are a couple of tips to help you avoid the risks.
  • For topical application of citrus fruit essential oils, it is recommended to always use the steam-distilled version instead of the cold-pressed (expressed) ones.
  • For extra precautionary measures, cover areas applied with phototoxic essential oils with thick clothing fabrics to effectively block the UV light. If you can’t cover them, then put sunscreen on the affected areas.
  • Whenever you applied phototoxic essential oils on your skin (even if you follow the safe dilution level), it is safer not to expose your skin to UV light for 12 – 24 hours.
  • When using phototoxic essential oil for topical applications, make sure to dilute it according to its maximum dermal safe percentage (see table above). It is also better not to use several phototoxic essential oils in a single blend as it would be more difficult to accurately compute the correct safe percentage of all the phototoxic essential oils used. Of course, the most accurate way of computing for the safe amount is to measure by weight and not by drops.
What to Do in Case of Phototoxicity?

As soon as you experience symptoms of phototoxicity, wash the affected skin thoroughly with plain soap and water for at least 10 minutes. If symptoms still persist after 24 hours, then immediately consult a doctor. Avoid doing self-medication on the inflamed skin by applying more essential oils because doing so might worsen the problem.

References:

Jacobson, L. (2015, April 22). Phototoxic Essential Oils – How to Stay Safe in the Sun. Retrieved from http://www.usingeossafely.com/phototoxic-essential-oils-how-to-stay-safe-in-the-sun/

Siegmund-Roach, S. (2016, July 11). The Truth About Phototoxic Essential Oils & How to Use Them Safely. Retrieved from https://theherbalacademy.com/truth-phototoxic-essential-oils-use-safely/

Tisserand, R. and Young, R. (2014). Essential Oil Safety (2nd ed.). London: Elsevier.

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