Using Phototoxic Essential Oils Safely
July 8, 2019

There’s a huge misconception that essential oils are 100% safe to be used any way you wish. In fact, just the opposite is true. Essential oils are extremely potent and powerful substances that can do a great deal of harm to your skin if not used properly. There are a handful of phototoxic essential oils that can cause painful sunburn. It’s imperative that you understand what Phototoxic means and which oils can cause it before hitting the beach or that tanning bed.

What is Phototoxicity?

To put it simply, Phototoxicity is the process where a chemical, like certain essential oils, absorb ultraviolet light and spurs a reaction that generally affects the skin. When this happens, you can get a truly wicked sunburn that causes blistering, itching, pain, and even dehydration.

Some reactions, such as skin discoloration, can be permanent. Yeah, not fun!

A lot of people don’t know this, but there are certain essential oils, namely citrus, that are made up of constituents like furocoumarins, coumarins, and linalool/linalool that can cause phototoxic reactions. (1)

This means that if you go dousing yourself in lemon essential oil and hang out by the pool you are putting yourself at risk for one heck of a sunburn. You certainly don’t want to spend your leisurely summer days red as a lobster, itching, and full of skin blisters.

And, get this…some phototoxic reactions may not show until a few hours AFTER sun exposure! If you are a repeat offender of putting phototoxic oils on your body and going out into the sun, you can do severe damage that may lead to skin cancer.

Aren’t Essential Oils Good for You?

Yes. However, we must think of essential oils as we think of medication because truthfully, they are medicines. There are ways to protect yourself from phototoxic essential oils and still be able to use them, safely.

Let’s take a look at the top 5 most Phototoxic essential oils:

  • Bergamot
  • Orange, bitter
  • Grapefruit
  • Lemon
  • Lime

When using these oils, you want to stay out of both direct and indirect sunlight for at least 12 -18 hours. Also, NEVER apply these oils directly to the skin in their undiluted form. A carrier oil must be used.

Tips to Avoid a Phototoxic Reactions

Honestly, it’s kind of hard to not use citrus essential oils during the spring and summer months. These oils are brimming with the scents of the season! There are plenty of ways to safely use these oils WITHOUT causing a phototoxic result.

As stated above, if you must use these oils topically, waiting at least 12 hours before venturing out into the sun is ideal. If you have to go out before then, cover your skin with long sleeves and/or pants.

READ LABELS! This cannot be stressed enough. There are countless natural products that contain citrus essential oils. You must be privy to what is in the lotions, balms, and salves you are putting onto your skin. This holds especially true when you purchase products from a DIYer. Skin creams that are pure and natural often don’t contain filler ingredients and this makes the essential oil content even more potent. If the ingredients aren’t listed on the label, don’t be afraid to ask the vendor for a list.

Now, we all get excited about summer and become forgetful when we are having fun in the sun. If you happen to use a phototoxic oil on your skin and venture out into the sunshine and experience a reaction, immediately rinse the area with a carrier oil (coconut, olive, avocado, etc.) or full-fat milk. These fatty substances will typically counteract the reaction. Do not use water to wash away the oil as oil and water do not mix and it can exacerbate the problem. Plus, it will NOT wash the oil away.

Once a reaction has occurred, it best to avoid using the offending oil again, even when out of the sun. Your body is now sensitized to said oil and can leave you vulnerable to other non-phototoxic reactions.

Substitutes for Phototoxic Essential Oils

There are certain citrus oils that are NOT phototoxic. It’s all about the part of the plant that was used to create the oil, it’s constituents, and how it may have been distilled.

  • Bergamot that is bergapten-free and furocoumarin-free
  • Steam distilled lime
  • Red Mandarin
  • Orange, Sweet
  • Tangerine
  • Blood Orange

You can safely use any of these oils, topically, as long as they are in a carrier oil.

If you want to use phototoxic essential oils, the best and safest practice is to use them at night before you go to bed. By the time you get out into the sunshine the next day, the effects will have worn off your body. You can also freely use citrus oil in shampoo, soap, and/or body washes as these types of products are rinsed off the skin during your shower. It is perfectly fine to apply phototoxic oils non-topically without worry. So, go ahead, sniff that orange oil on a sunny day until your heart’s content!

Don’t be Intimidated by Phototoxic Essential Oils

This article isn’t meant to discourage or scare you from using wonderful citrus oils. It’s meant to educate you on how to properly use them when you plan to be in the sun. Continue reaping the benefits of using your oils in a safe and pleasant manner.

There are all kinds of way to enjoy phototoxic oils other than topically. Add a drop to your shower wall and pretend you’re in an orange grove while you bath or place a few drops of lemon oil in your wash. Who doesn’t like citrus-scented undies? Make your home smell like a tropical paradise by diffusing grapefruit and lime oils. Yum! The possibilities are endless.

You can have a lot of fun with your phototoxic essential oils if you practice habits of safe use.


  1. American College of Healthcare Sciences. Essential Oil Safety: What is Phototoxicity? [document on the internet]. ACHS.EDU. January 30, 2018. Available from:

About author

Heather Cooan

Heather is a marketing executive turned nutrition consultant and educator. Heather advocates for informed consent, bodily autonomy, and healthcare authorship. She speaks and writes on nutrition and lifestyle design interventions for health recovery. Heather successfully recovered her health from vulvar cancer, Hashimoto's, and lichen sclerosus. She reversed estrogen dominance, insulin resistance, arteriosclerosis, and fatty liver utilizing a food-as-medicine and integrated clinical treatment approach. Heather is a certified Functional Diagnostic Nutrition® Practitioner and Nutrition Therapy Practitioner.

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