Do All Citrus Essential Oils Cause Photosensitivity?
The simple answer is NO!
You may have heard the terms “phototoxicity” or “photosensitivity” when reading about citrus essential oils which may scare you away from using these wonderfully uplifting oils.
Although most of the essential oils that cause this photosensitive reaction are citrus oils, not all citrus essential oils are phototoxic.
What is Phototoxicity?
Phototoxicity, also known as photosensitivity, is a condition in which the skin becomes extremely sensitive when exposed to sunlight (or any UV radiation) due to the topical application of certain substances – in this case, essential oils.
The skin condition is called phytophotodermatitis (phyto=plant; photo=light; derma=skin; itis=inflammation)
An essential oil is said to be “phototoxic” when it increases the likelihood of a photosensitive reaction.
Which Citrus Oils ARE Phototoxic and Which Are NOT?
Here’s a quick guide to phototoxicity in citrus essential oils according to the research reported in the book Essential Oil Safety by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young and the International Fragrance Association (IFRA).
The following are some citrus essential oils that are NOT phototoxic:
- Bergamot FCF or BF (Citrus bergamia) essential oil (furocoumarin and bergaptene free)
- Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil, steam distilled
- Lemon (Citrus limon) essential oil, steam distilled
- Lime (Citrus aurantifolia) essential oil, steam distilled
- Sweet orange (Citrus sinensis), cold-pressed or steam distilled
- Tangerine (Citrus reticulata) essential oil, cold-pressed or steam distilled
The following are some of the citrus essential oils that ARE phototoxic:
- Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil, cold-pressed
- Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi) essential oil, cold-pressed*
- Lemon (Citrus limon) essential oil, cold-pressed
- Lime (Citrus aurantifolia) essential oil, cold-pressed
*There is some controversy as to whether grapefruit essential oil should be included on the phototoxic list. Some professionals in the field of essential oil research believe that an analysis of the chemical breakdown of grapefruit oil and the existing literature do not show concerns of phototoxicity for grapefruit essential oil.
What Factors Determine if a Phototoxic Reaction Will Occur?
The lists above are a good place to begin an investigation of photosensitivity reactions, but the story is more complex than that. There are other factors that determine whether a photosensitivity reaction will occur.
- In order for phytophotodermatitis to occur, the essential oil product must be left on the skin and be exposed to the sun or UV rays
- The phototoxic reaction only occurs if the blend is applied topically at dilutions that are greater than those recommended to sun-exposed skin
- Not all citrus oils are equally phototoxic and each oil has a different maximum percentage that can be used in skincare products before you risk sensitization and skin irritation
- The degree of the photosensitivity reaction depends on the type of oil, how it is extracted, the amount used, exposure time, and the dilution
- It is safe to use a phototoxic essential oil in products that will be washed off such a soap, shampoo, or sugar scrubs. So you can wash your face with a bergamot scrub and go out for a sunny day in the garden with no ill effects
- Patch Test! Even if an essential oil blend or product is not listed as phototoxic, always use care and perform a patch test before use especially if you have fair or sensitive skin