We have been waiting for summer to arrive, and it seems last week was our first blast of real heat and sunshine on the West Coast. It has been a long time since we’ve experienced this intensity of sunshine, so it seems timely to remind people of the dangers of certain essential oils when exposed to sunlight.
Normally, we have few issues with the aromatherapy blends we apply to our skin, as the sun intensity on the West Coast is generally a mild-moderate rating. Last week’s heat wave was a reminder that we need to check the ingredients in our lotions and creams. There is a very specific sun sensitivity reaction between UV radiation and specific components in essential oils. This reaction occurs when essential oils with lactones, and specifically furocoumarins, are used on the skin.
What, you may ask, are lactones and furocoumarins? These are specific phytochemicals that if applied to the skin, will create a skin sensitization reaction when they are exposed to sunlight. The reaction looks like a rash sunburn combination – and yes it is itchy, burning and painful! Some people have had severe blistering to the point of scarring. This is no picnic!
The essential oils with the highest levels of furocoumarins are those oils expressed from citrus peels. This includes orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit and bergamot, amongst others. There are a few miscellaneous essential oils that can also cause this reaction, but the main culprits are citrus peel essential oils.
Does this mean that we must put away these essential oils until the rainy days return? Not at all! However, we must be careful with how and when we use them. Applying blends with these oils in the evening will be safe. Using them in diffusers or room sprays will be fine, as long as the mist doesn’t touch the skin. If these fruit peel oils are used in bath soaps or shampoos, rinse well before leaving the shower or bath. Some aromatherapists will switch to essential oils from the fruit pulp of these plants instead of their peels. There are virtually no furocoumarins in the pulp, therefore they are safe to use in the sunshine. However, the therapeutic value of these pulp oils is different from their stronger fruit peel cousins. But it is an option during the sunny weather.
One more note: this skin reaction can also occur if citrus peel oils are applied to the skin and the person uses tanning booths. It is the UV component of the light spectrum that creates the reaction.
Be safe – know your products and your essential oils.