There are a lot of essential oil myths floating around out there. I covered quite a few of them in this post here, like if it’s really so scary to ingest oils, or if you can use them safely on little ones. Something I’ve learned more about recently though is what phototoxic oils REALLY are and how to safely use them.
I thought I had it figured out. Citrus oils were phototoxic, meaning that when they were applied to the skin they could cause skin to be much more likely to burn in the sun. I recently learned though that I had it all wrong.
Are Citrus Oils Phototoxic?
Yes and no. Certain oils do cause the skin to be more prone to burning and many of them are citrus oils. However not all citrus oils are phototoxic. Here’s a list of oils that are phototoxic according to Robert Tisserand and the International Fragrance Association, or IFRA.
Phototoxic essential oils
- Bitter orange peel, cold pressed
- Fig leaf absolute
- Bergamot oil, cold pressed
- Lime oil, cold pressed
- Lemon oil, cold pressed
- Grapefruit oil, cold pressed
- Cumin oil
- Rue oil
- Angelica root oil
Update: There’s controversy over grapefruit being on this list, as professionals in the essential oil field have said that an analysis of the chemical breakdown of the oil and the existing literature show no concerns of phototoxicity. Being a citrus oil however, it tends to just get lumped in with the avoid list. This info comes from Jesssie Hawkins of the Franklin Institute on the school’s private student Facebook group.
Citrus oils that are NOT phototoxic
- Lime oil, steam distilled
- Lemon oil, steam distilled
- Mandarin, cold pressed
- Tangerine, cold pressed
- Sweet or wild orange (citrus sinensis), cold pressed
Phototoxic Essential Oil Safety for Skin
Based off of my readings from different aromatherapy blogs, I was well aware of the fact that phototoxic oils just shouldn’t be used on the skin. Or if you did use them, to make sure you didn’t expose skin to the sun for at least 12 hours, or up to 3 days. That’s not exactly true though.
Wash off products
If you’re including the phototoxic oil in a wash off product, then the same rules don’t apply. Since the essential oil won’t be sitting on the skin, there is no concern for phototoxicity. So you can wash your face with a lemon oil laced scrub and go out for a day at the beach with no ill effects.
Anything that’s meant to be washed off of the skin, such as soap, shampoo, face wash and body scrubs can safely use phototoxic oils. Each oil however has a maximum percentage that can be used in products before you’re risking skin irritation and sensitization. These guidelines of course are referring to skincare only and don’t apply to essential oils used in higher concentrations for medical purposes.
Leave on products
Some bodycare products that use essential oils are meant to be left on the skin, such as lotion, body butter, body spray and lip balm. Since the oils are going to be sitting on the top layer of the skin somewhat, you do have to exercise more caution here.
Most people believe that phototoxic oils can’t be used on the skin at all under any circumstance, but there are actually safe usage limits for leave on products. These guidelines don’t include essential oils used on the lip area. Since the lips are more delicate, the use of oils on them is more restricted. In general, essential oils make up about 2% of skincare products. They’re very concentrated substances, so you don’t need much.
Below are the maximum percentages of certain phototoxic oils that can be used on the skin, and roughly how many drops that would be per ounce of carrier oil or other material. The IFRA guidelines differ a little from what Tisserand recommends in his book Essential Oil Safety. Tisserand seems to be a little more conservative with phototoxic oil usage.
Using phototoxic oils in leave on products (lotion, body butter, body spray)
Lemon, cold pressed – 2% or about 12 drops per ounce of carrier
Lime, cold pressed – .7% or about 4 drops per ounce of carrier
Bergamot, cold pressed – .4% or about 2 drops per ounce of carrier
Grapefruit, cold pressed – 4% or about 24 drops per ounce of carrier
Bitter orange, cold pressed – 1.25% or about 7 drops per ounce of carrier
Using phototoxic oils in wash off products (soap, face wash, body wash)
Lemon, cold pressed – 5% or about 30 drops per ounce of carrier
Lime, cold pressed – 25% or about 150 drops per ounce of carrier
Bergamot, cold pressed – 5% or about 30 drops per ounce of carrier
Grapefruit, cold pressed – 5% or about 30 drops per ounce of carrier
Bitter orange, cold pressed – Listed as no restriction for wash off product. I can’t locate a maximum usage limit for bitter orange, although I’m assuming an undiluted oil could be irritating to skin. Based off of other usage guidelines, I personally wouldn’t use more than 5% in a wash off product, or about 30 drops per carrier.