Essential oils & sun exposure: what you need to know
With their bright, sunny, mood-boosting aromas, citrus essential oils are perfect for summer.
Yet citrus oils can also cause serious negative skin reactions if they’re not used safely in the sun.
Why? Many citrus essential oils are phototoxic.
Phototoxic essential oils contain natural compounds that react with UV light. When a phototoxic essential oil is applied to your skin (even if it’s diluted), and that skin is then exposed to sunlight, it can cause burning, blistering, and permanent (or semi-permanent) discoloration.
In this post, you’ll learn:
- Which essential oils are phototoxic
- How to use phototoxic oils in the sun without negative reactions
- How long it takes for a bad skin reaction to show up
- What to do if you get a phototoxic skin reaction
Which essential oils cause negative reactions in the sun?
Not all citrus oils cause bad reactions in the sun. Orange Sweet Oil (Citrus sinensis), for example, is not phototoxic at all. And some oils are only phototoxic in certain circumstances, such as lime. Lime Oil (Citrus aurantifolia) can be produced either by cold-pressing or steam distillation.
If it’s cold-pressed, it IS phototoxic. If it’s steam distilled, it’s NOT phototoxic. The process of steam distillation naturally removes the phototoxic components. However, both cold-pressed and steam distilled lime oil have the same Latin name: Citrus aurantifolia. Just be sure you know the method of production for your lime oil.
I’ve noted other oil-specific details like this in the list below.
How to safely use phototoxic oils in your summer blends
If you stay within certain low dilution ratios, you can still blend with phototoxic oils.
For example, if you can’t resist wearing a lemon essential oil blend while hanging out at the pool, you can do so if you blend the lemon at a 2% dilution—that’s up to 12 drops per 1 oz/30 ml of carrier. 12 drops or less of lemon oil is okay. Over 12 drops, and you’ll be risking phototoxic reactions.
Each phototoxic oil has its own safe dilution ratio.
Phototoxic essential oils and safe percentages to blend them at:
Angelica root (Angelica archangelica)
Dilute at 0.8% – 4 drops per 1 oz/30 ml of carrier
Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)
Dilute at 0.4% – 2 drops per 1 oz/30 ml of carrier
- Bitter orange (Citrus uranium)
Dilute at 1.25% – 7 drops per 1 oz/30 ml of carrier
* Sweet and wild orange (Citrus sinensis) are NOT phototoxic.
Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi)
Dilute at 4% – 24 drops per 1 oz/30 ml of carrier
Lemon (Citrus limon)
Dilute at 2% – 12 drops per 1 oz/30 ml of carrier
* Distilled lemon (also Citrus limon) is NOT phototoxic, but is very rare.
- Lime, cold-pressed (Citrus aurantifolia)
Dilute at 0.7% – 4 drops per 1 oz/30 ml of carrier
* Distilled lime (also Citrus aurantifolia) is NOT phototoxic.
- Mandarin leaf (Citrus reticulata)
Dilute at 0.17% – Less than 1 drop per 1 oz/30 ml of carrier
* Mandarin oil cold-pressed from the fruit rind (also Citrus reticulata) is NOT phototoxic.
How soon does a phototoxic reaction to essential oils happen?
If you apply a 1 oz blend with 15 drops of lemon essential oil (which is over the sun-safe limit for lemon!) to your neck and arms, and then you walk through a parking lot to your car, or pop down your driveway to get the mail, you should be just fine.
In those cases, you’re not lingering in the sun.
However, if you spend time in your garden, go for a leisurely walk around your neighborhood, hang out at the pool, or lay in a tanning bed, a negative skin reaction can show up.
The exact amount of time it takes for a negative reaction to set in varies based on a lot of factors, such as how long you were outside, which essential oils you used, how many drops were applied, the specific batch of oil itself (some batches naturally contain more of the phototoxic components than others), and more.
If you put on your 15-drop lemon blend and spend a few hours lounging in the sun, you might start to feel uncomfortable while you’re still outside. Or the burns might “wait” until later to appear. You may see discoloration or blisters forming that evening or the next day.
What to do if you experience a phototoxic reaction
I recommend not applying any other essential oils (even skin-soothing lavender) for the time being.
If possible, wash the area gently with soap and water, so you can remove any lingering traces of the phototoxic oil blend.
Then apply a plain, unblended carrier or hydrosol to help calm the area and reduce the damage.
Carriers to use:
1. Aloe Vera Gel (Aloe barbadensis)
2. Calendula Infused Olive Oil (Calendula officinalis)
3. St. Johns Wort Infused Olive Oil (Hypericum perforatum)
Hydrosols to use:
1. Calendula Hydrosol (Calendula officinalis)
2. German Chamomile Hydrosol (Matricaria recutita)
3. Lavender Hydrosol (Lavandula angustifolia)
If you have developed a severe burn and are not getting relief, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor or go to an urgent care center.
Be safe and have fun!
As long as you’re respecting the potency of your essential oils and using safety guidelines, you can enjoy the sun without concern!