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May 22, 2023
Essential oils are fun, effective, and provide us with an extra ambiance of scent when diffused in rooms and used in products. Yet, a number of oils come with safety cautions. One thing that concerns me is oils that are sold off the shelf in many stores that have safety cautions you may not be aware of.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the weather is becoming warmer and we are seeing the sun for a longer time each day. Now is a great time for an important reminder that some essential oils are phototoxic, and, mixed with sunlight can harm your skin. Lets go over a list of oils to be cautious of during this season, and why this is important information to have in your depth of knowledge. Grab a cup of coffee or tea, and let’s dive in to the intriguing world of essential oil safety while you’re enjoying your time in the sun.
What is phototoxicity?
Pubmed provides the following definition of phototoxicity.
“Phototoxicity is an acute light-induced response, which occurs when photoreactive chemicals are activated by solar lights and transformed into products cytotoxic against the skin cells. Multifarious symptoms of phototoxicity are identified, skin irritation, erythema, pruritis, and edema that are similar to those of the exaggerated sunburn.”[i]
In other words, specifically with respect to essential oils, using certain oils before skin exposure to UV light will create a chemical reaction that will harm the skin. This includes exposure to both sunshine and tanning beds, for example. While the quote references the results of erythema (redness), pruritis (itching), edema (swelling) and effects similar to sunburn, I can’t stress enough how serious the effect on the skin can be. These effects can be more severe than a regular sunburn and it can take a very long time to heal from this kind of skin damage.
What makes an essential oil phototoxic?
The chemical components that we want to watch out for are furanocoumarins (FCs). Examples of FCs include psoralen, methoxsalen, bergapten, oxypeucedanin and angelicin. These components are activated in the presence of UV light. The risk of phototoxicity will depend on the presence and amount of the chemical component. Ask your essential oil distributor for batch specific chemical reports that illustrate the percentage of each chemical component that was found in the oil when tested.
A couple of other factors to consider are:
Dilution rate: Get to know safe dilution rates of essential oils and why that safety rating exists. In the case of phototoxicity, the effect can be cumulative. In other words, if you use a phototoxic oil at a safe dilution of 0.02% and a second phototoxic oil with the same safe dilution rate, you have now doubled the amount of phototoxic oils in your recipe.
Plan ahead: Plan your time in the sun. It is always a good idea to exercise caution to sun exposure, however, the longer you are in the sun, the worse the effect on your skin will be. Find shade, or cover up your skin from the UV rays. Know where you are going and plan ahead. Keep light clothing or a towel with you if possible. Clothing has a UPF rating (Ultraviolet Protection Factor). UPF is the level of UV radiation capable of passing through fabric and reaching your skin. While SPF is the amount of time it takes for your skin to become red. For example, if your skin usually burns in 15 minutes, then applying a lotion with an SPF rating of 15 will may allow you to be in the sun 15 times longer before your skin burns. Note that not all clothing has the same protection level. Remember to plan accordingly.
Can I still use phototoxic oils in the summer time?
According to Essential Oil Safety, by Tisserand and Young, furanocoumarins “are generally found in expressed (cold-pressed) citrus fruit oils, but not in distilled citrus fruit oils."[ii]
Bergamot is a phototoxic essential oil that is very popular. Through an essential oil extraction method called fractional distillation, distillers are able to remove furanocoumarins, making the oil safer. This type of Bergamot is labelled as FCF, or “furanocoumarin free”. Other regularly cold pressed essential oils that can be steam distilled are bitter orange, lemon and lime. I recommend caution around this point. While I hope that you are reading labels to determine which brands provide quality essential oils to purchase, in the case that you are not familiar with the method of extracting the oil, it’s best to avoid these oils before skin exposure. Knowing your essential oil supplier and being able to trust their labelling is an important aspect of buying quality oils.
Wash off products
Caution is advised when using wash off products with phototoxic components, especially where the component is present in the oil at higher levels.
If you will be covering up with clothing and not exposing your skin to the sun’s UV light, or a tanning bed, using phototoxic essential oils can be safer with the right clothing.
If you love the citrus oils, there are many substitutions that can be made for the same effect or similar scent profile. Check the list of non-phototoxic oils provided at the end of this blog. You may find a new favourite!
A great way to continue to enjoy these oils in the summer time is to use a personal inhaler or aromatic jewelry. You can also use a diffuser such as our terra cotta clay diffusers. These diffusers can be placed in your car, closet or in your home office to deliver the delightful scents you create. The more you use it, the more effective the clay becomes as a diffuser.
Phototoxic Essential Oil Caution List
This list is not exhaustive, but contains oils that can be commonly found on store shelves. Use them with caution.
Dilution rates of Phototoxic Oils
According to the IFRA, the following chart provides guidelines to the maximum dermal use of phototoxic essential oils to minimize, and in most cases avoid, adverse reactions.[iii]
Do not use the oils listed on this chart in a larger dilutions applied to the skin at least 12-18 hours before UV ray exposure (sun or tanning beds).
Which citrus oils are not phototoxic?
Not all citrus oils are phototoxic. The following list are essential oils that will be safe for use in the proper dilution. Remember to look for the extraction method (in parentheses below) before purchasing.Lemon, Citrus limon (steam distilled)
If you have further questions do not hesitate to contact a certified aromatherapist. That’s me! Use my Contact Us form on the website.
The information on our website is not intended to cure, diagnose or treat medical conditions, nor is it a substitute for medical advice. Please consult with a physician before beginning this or any other new health care program. The information contained on this site is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be substituted for the advice provided by your doctor or other health care professional. If you rely upon any programs or techniques, or use any of the products and services made available by or through the use of our website for decision making, without obtaining the advice of a physician or other health care professional, you do so at your own risk. The views expressed on Standing Stone Wellness have not been evaluated or endorsed by any private or public entity. The information on our website is not legal advice. Please consult with a licensed legal professional for adherence to legal guidelines.
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