A Few tips on Lovin’ the Summer Sun and Essential Oils…

Without Experiencing the Burn!

Listen to “My Story of a Sunny Event with an Unfortunate Phototoxic Outcome with Lemon Essential Oil” in less than 4 minutes below.


Listen to this article in less than 7 minutes below.


I just released my embarrassing personal story of a sunny event with an unfortunate, skin-altering outcome. I am hoping you will learn from my mistake and heed more respect for the phototoxic potential of certain essential oils.

You can learn more about what happened to me when I combined the dreadful equation of coconut oil, a volatile essential oil, a previous exposure of lemon essential oil, and a fun day in the sun here. This way you won’t have to experience either a premier or an unwanted sequel…like I did!

Now, I want to explain why applying lemon oil the night prior caused this discoloration in my skin tone.

Let’s dig in…


What is Phototoxicity?

It’s Not Phytotoxicity

First of all, if you search google to learn more, don’t make the mistake of mistyping “phytotoxicity.” You won’t get the gist of what I’m discussing here. (source, source, source) Rather, you’ll get a vast amount of hits on “weed management” and “pest control.”

PennState Extension states, “Plant injury (phytotoxicity) may occur when chemicals are employed to protect plants from pests, fertilize plants, regulate plant growth, etc.”

Essential oils are natural protectors of the plant, so of course when certain compounds are extracted out of them, they can be used as natural products for lawn care beautification.

What I’ll be discussing is another term which is more familiar with essential oils’ lovers.

Before I go into the details, I don’t want this word to scare the buggers out of you!

If you show some respect for the sun and apply oils as directed, you’ll be a lot better off than I was!


Sun Exposure, the Skin, and Certain Essential Oils to Be Cautious With

What’s in a Name?

Lindsey Elmore, PhD states that:

Phototoxicity is a type of allergic reaction where a chemical substance increases the sensitivity to the ultraviolet (UV) light. Furanocoumarins (FCs) found in some essential oils squeeze between base pairs in DNA. When exposed to UV light, the FCs form covalent bonds with DNA.  This crosslinks the DNA. Crosslinking causes an inflammatory response: redness of the skin, sunburn, and, in severe cases, blistering.  Unlike regular sunburn, phototoxicity reactions are sometimes delayed for several days. The change in the color of skin may last for weeks.

According to SkinCancer.org, this is technically a phototoxic reaction, which differs from a photoallergic reaction.

So, although an accepted term, I’m not sure it is fully accurate to denote this reaction as “phototoxicity” with “allergy” in the definition every time. To be precise, it would be a photosensitivity that is phototoxic.

An article from Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery reports:

Photosensitivity may be phototoxic or photoallergic. Phototoxicity is much more common. There are 2 types of phototoxicity…

Photoallergy is an uncommon acquired altered reactivity dependent on an immediate antibody or a delayed cell mediated reaction. Solar urticaria is an example of the former, whereas photoallergy to exogenous chemicals is an example of the latter…

Photoallergy to systemic drugs does occur but is difficult to characterize. The action spectrum for photoreactions to exogenous agents usually at least includes the ultraviolet A rays for both phototoxicity and photoallergy.


“Dr. Sarah, Say What?”


From my understanding, what I am currently experiencing is the result of a reaction between the furanocoumarins (FCs) in lemon essential oil with the DNA in my cells. This causes a crosslinking that was the result of sun exposure. I am unlikely producing an allergic response to lemon oil, as FCs are more likely to cause reactions that are “phototoxic.”

This nine-page PDF goes into all the biochemistry. This is for those interested in the very intricate details of these responses. For most, and myself, it can cause a bit of a cross-eyed experience.


The Big Question:

Should You Ban Lemon Oil from Your Cabinet… in the Summer?


No, but you should be aware of the oils that can create such a response and take precautions. These include:

  • covering the application area
  • waiting 12-18 hours before exposure to the sun (source, source)
  • being aware of what oils cause this response (This article lists all the essential oils that you need to be careful of.)

An article on Aromaweb summarizes these points:

Usage Recommendations Per Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young

“There is generally no phototoxic risk if the oils are used in a product that is either not applied to the body or is washed off the skin, such as shampoo, bath preparation or soap. However, essential oils can adhere to the skin if used in a sauna or steam inhalation. There is no risk if the skin to which the oils are applied is covered in such a way as to prevent UV rays from reaching them.”

“We recommend that skin treated with phototoxic oils at levels higher than those maximum use levels, should not be exposed to UV light for 12-18 hours.”


Caught Citrus (or Phytotoxic) Essential Oil- Handed in the Sun!?

What NOW?!

YLEO gives some tips on what to do if you get caught in the rays with a skin altering oil in hand. These include:

  • getting out of the sun
  • rinsing with cold water
  • diluting the exposed area with vegetable oil


The Next Big Question…

I can already here the question percolating in your beautiful minds?

What about ingesting these same essential oils?!

That’s another topic for next time because I am digging real deep on this, for you, my beautiful oily people!

To not leave you hanging, here is my short response, without all the evidence fully reviewed.

It is that is not too much of a concern if you aren’t overdosing in water, or slathering them on in topical application!

I drink citrus oils in my water daily and have never experienced a response from internal usage.


Straight Talk Summary in One-Two Sentences

Enjoy the sun, enjoy your citrus oils.

Please don’t slather them on your body, or, go heavy-handed with them in your water, and then run to the beach immediately following!!


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This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)

Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.

Thanks Pixabay and iStock purchases.