Essential oils are great for adding a natural fragrance to cosmetics, however, essential oils can react to our environment in ways that harm our skin. Specifically, citrus oils reacting with sunlight, and some are photosensitive. Photosensitization is the process in which ultraviolet light radiation combines with a particular substance and causes chemical or biological changes. Some essential oils contain furocoumarins, a special class of chemicals that can change the photosensitization of the skin. This can cross-links with the skin cell DNA, in turn making the skin especially susceptible to UV radiation. This can all so damage the cell membrane, organelles, and proteins. If exposed to sunlight after a topical application of photosensitive oil, the skin may become temporarily darkly pigmented, red, or irritated. Symptoms of this can be severe sunburn, darkening of the skin, swelling, and blistering. Often times you will see this occur in areas where perfume is usually applied such as the neck, decollete, wrists and inside of the elbows.
Which oils are photosensitive?
- Bitter orange oil
- Angelica root
- Mandarin leaf
- Angelica root
- Lemon verbena
- Fig leaf absolute
How to avoid photosensitization
Avoid the sun for 12-18 hours after you applied a photosensitive essential oil. the easiest way to avoid photosensitization is to not apply a furanocoumarin-containing essential oil to the skin at all. Covering up any skin to which phototoxic essential oils have been applied can help prevent a phototoxic reaction however thin fabrics may not provide adequate protection. Phototoxic essential oils can still be used topically on the skin even with exposure to UV light as long as they are safely diluted. Using photosensitive oils at nighttime helps reduce the risk associated with these oils.
Many people write off all citrus oils as being photosensitive but there are several that are safe to use, including steam distilled version. Although furanocoumarins are present in cold-pressed versions, the molecules are not volatile and remain behind during steam distillation/
Sun safe essential oils include:
- Lemon -steam distilled
- Lime -steam distilled
- Bergamot -steam distilled- furanocoumarin free
- Mandarin – cold press
- Orange, sweet cold pressed
- Tangerine – cold pressed