Person with finger over essential oils being diffused

Do Essential Oils Make You Photosensitive?

Finger over essential oil steam diffusing into the air

As spring and summer approach, many of us start to think more about protecting our skin from UV radiation from the sunlight, especially as we spend more time outdoors. While specific steps are obvious for protecting your skin, like wearing sunblock and sunglasses, other measures, like being careful about which essential oils you apply topically, should also be considered. 

That’s right! Certain essential oils can cause photosensitivity, making you more sensitive to sunlight. Keep reading to learn what happens when your skin becomes photosensitive and how to prevent this from happening. 

What is Photosensitivity?

Let’s start by answering the question: what exactly is photosensitivity?

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, photosensitivity is a heightened skin sensitivity or atypical reaction your skin has when exposed to UV radiation. Our skin is exposed to UV radiation from sunlight or artificial “sun” sources like tanning beds. Certain medical conditions, genetic disorders, medications, and skincare products can also cause or increase photosensitivity.  Heightened skin sensitivity is more common, but phototoxic and photoallergic reactions may also occur due to photosensitivity. 

A phototoxic reaction typically occurs after a medication you take by mouth or a product topically applied is activated by UV light exposure. This reaction damages the skin and may appear in the form of a rash or feel like a sunburn. On the other hand, photoallergic reactions are less common and happen when UV light rays interact with specific ingredients within topical skincare products or medicines. Typically, this leaves individuals with a rash, red bumps, or blisters. 

Unfortunately, repeated exposure and photosensitivity reactions can lead to long-term health problems, such as basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers or melanoma. As a result, it’s critical that you understand which essential oils will increase your risk of photosensitivity when you’re applying them topically to the skin. 

Do Essential Oils Cause Photosensitivity? 

Yes and no. Some essential oils can cause photosensitivity. For example, bergamot essential oil usually contains bergapten, a furanocoumarin, and a type of secondary metabolite in many citrus plants. Bergapten is a natural, organic compound made by many plant species, especially from the carrot family, and may cause you to burn if you spend time outside in the sun.

The furanocoumarins essentially cause the cells to be more “sensitive” to UV light, resulting in burns. You may have heard of a margarita burn that occurs after you come into contact with lime from squeezing the rind. This contact results in photosensitivity and a burn. 

We remove bergapten from our bergamot essential oil to prevent this from happening to our clients. However, other vendors don’t always remove this compound, so it’s important to check before using an essential oil topically and spending time in the sunlight. When the citrus is steam distilled, they are typically safer for topical application within a carrier oil, lotion, salve, etc. 

How Do I Avoid Photosensitivity Caused by Essential Oils?

For starters, you can opt for essential oils that don’t cause photosensitivity, such as our steam-distilled Lime Essential Oil, to reduce the risk of photosensitivity caused by essential oils. 

There’s also little to no risk of photosensitivity caused by essential oils unless the product is applied to the skin. Keep in mind that essential oils can adhere to your skin if you use them in  steam inhalation or a sauna. However, there is generally no risk if you are diffusing essential oils in your home as this isn’t a close enough exposure or adherence to the skin to result in photosensitivity. 

If you use an essential oil known for causing photosensitivity, avoid UV light exposure and direct sunlight for at least 12 hours. If you must go outside, wear full-coverage clothing like long sleeves and long pants to protect your skin. 

We also recommend always checking the ingredients in your skincare products, topical medications, lotions, and more. Many of these products may contain warnings about photosensitivity or have essential oils that cause photosensitivity in their ingredient lists. Shower products applied to the skin, such as body washes or shampoo, are generally not considered a risk since they are washed off. 

What Essential Oils Cause Photosensitivity?

Essential oils that contain furocoumarins, linalool, and coumarins are all thought to cause photosensitivity, according to the American College of Healthcare Sciences. Most of these are citrus essential oils that have not been steam distilled or had certain chemicals, like bergapten, removed to prevent photosensitivity from developing. 

Here are a few of the top offenders: 

  • Lime essential oil (Cold Pressed)
  • Lemon essential oil
  • Bitter orange essential oil
  • Bergamot essential oil 
  • Angelica root essential oil
  • Angelica root CO2
  • Mandarin essential oil
  • Grapefruit essential oil
  • Rue leaf essential oil
  • Cumin seed essential oil
  • Cumin seed absolute
  • Celery leaf essential oil
  • Celery seed absolute
  • Khella essential oil 
  • Lovage leaf essential oil
  • Combava fruit essential oil 
  • Parsnip essential oil
  • Lovage leaf essential oil

Citrus Essential Oils Not Considered Phototoxic: 

Here are a few alternative citrusy essential oils that are not considered phototoxic: 

  • Lime essential oil (steam distilled) 
  • Bergamot essential oil (steam distilled)
  • Bergamot essential oil (Has the bergapten/furanocoumarins removed) 
  • Sweet orange essential oil (steam distilled or cold pressed) 
  • Lemon essential oil (steam distilled) 
  • Petitgrain essential oil
  • Tangelo essential oil (steam distilled or cold pressed) 
  • Tangerine essential oil (steam distilled or cold pressed) 
  • Mandarin essential oil (steam distilled) 
  • Satsuma essential oil (steam distilled or cold pressed) 
  • Yuzu essential oil (steam distilled or cold pressed) 
  • Blood orange essential oil (steam distilled or cold pressed) 

Learn more about fun ways to incorporate citrus essential oils into your life in our article on How to Use Orange Essential Oils

As always, if you have additional questions, please reach out to us or drop in! We’re happy to answer any questions you may have. We hope this guide gave you a better understanding of photosensitivity and how some essential oils may cause it, especially if they aren’t processed in a particular way. 


Herbalist Natalie & Herbalist Leilah

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