Phototoxic – Citrus Essential Oils and the Sun


Have you heard of photosensitive essential oils or phototoxic essential oils?  Certain essential oils can cause a skin reaction when exposed to the sun.  This is called photosensitivity or phototoxicity.

It’s a reaction to essential oils that could cause blistering of the skin where the oil had been applied, severe sunburn, or a long-lasting change to the color of your skin. Definitely, something to be avoided

Most of the essential oils that cause this photosensitive reaction from the sun are citrus oils.

But (and this is an important but) not all citrus essential oils are phototoxic.

The following citrus essential oils are not phototoxic (1):

  • Mandarin essential oil
  • Wild orange/Sweet orange essential oil
  • Tangerine essential oil
  • Steam-distilled lemon essential oil
  • Steam-distilled lime essential oil
  • (lemongrass is also not phototoxic.  It’s not even citrus, but I frequently see it listed on charts and in articles saying it is phototoxic, so I thought I’d try to clear that one up, too)

So which citrus oils are phototoxic?

  • Bergamot essential oil
  • Grapefruit essential oil
  • Bitter orange essential oil
  • Cold-pressed lemon essential oil
  • Cold-pressed lime essential oil

Be especially careful with bergamot and cold-pressed lime essential oils.

The citrus essential oils listed above are not all equally phototoxic.

It takes 24 times as much grapefruit essential oil to be as phototoxic as 1 drop of bergamot.

Here’s a list of the maximum number of drops per ounce of carrier oil before each of these essential oils will cause a phototoxic reaction:

  • bergamot 1 drop
  • cold-pressed lime 4 drops
  • bitter orange 8 drops
  • cold-pressed lemon 12 drops
  • grapefruit 24 drops

What does it all mean?  Can we still use these phototoxic citrus essential oils when our skin will be exposed to the sun?

Here are a few safe ways to use these phototoxic essential oils on our skin:

  1. Use fewer drops of the phototoxic essential oil than the recommended maximum listed above.  So, for example, the recommended phototoxic-safe maximum number of drops of grapefruit per ounce of carrier oil is 24.  A 10ml roller bottle is 1/3 of an ounce, so the recommended maximum for a 10ml roller bottle is 8 drops of grapefruit.  (that’s a lot!)  Use fewer than 8 drops of grapefruit per 10ml of carrier oil and you can safely use that diluted grapefruit roller bottle even on skin that might be exposed to the sun.
  2. wear sun-protective clothing over the phototoxic oil
  3. Diffuse the essential oil instead of applying it topically
  4. Use the phototoxic essential oil in a product that will be washed off (soap, shampoo, sugar scrub, bath bomb, bubble bath, shower gel, body wash, etc)

Bibliography: 1 Tisserand and Young’s book, Essential Oil Safety