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There have been photos circulating recently on Facebook of a phototoxic reaction to an essential oil. While it isn’t clear which specific citrus oil caused this reaction, it is known how the oil caused the reaction. This was caused by neat usage on the skin of a phototoxic oil followed by exposure to UV light from a tanning bed.

Photoxicity happens when chemicals found in an essential oil absorb UV rays and a skin reaction involving burns, blisters, redness, or discoloration results. Not all oils are phototoxic. Below is a short list of commonly used phototoxic oils. (This is not a complete list.) 

  • Bergamot
  • Bitter Orange
  • Grapefruit
  • Lemon
  • Lime

Phototoxic oils can be used safely as long as they are used with caution. A few options concerning phototoxic oil use are finding an alternative, covering exposed skin, or safely diluting within the dermal limits.

The first option is to avoid using them at all. In some cases you might want to simply use an alternative. For example, cold-pressed lime is phototoxic but steam distilled lime is not. In this case you can just substitute one lime for another. The chart below lists a few other substitutions you can try.



Not Phototoxic


Bergamot FCF

Bitter Orange

Sweet Orange

Cold-Pressed Lime

Steam Distilled Lime

Cold-Pressed Lemon

Steam Distilled Lemon


If you can’t find a substituion and want to apply a properly diluted phototoxic oil to your skin just make sure the oil is applied to skin that will be under clothing when you go outside. The clothing will serve as a protective barrier. Your skin will need to remain covered from UV rays for the next 18 hours.

If you still want to use phototoxic oils in a blend intended for your exposed skin, please make sure you do it safely. You will need to know the maximum dermal usage to avoid photoxicity. For more information on phototoxicity and dermal limits consult the second edition of Robert Tisserand’s book, “Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals.”

As the usage of essential oils continues to spread, safety is an important topic. Summer will be here soon and nobody wants to have a painful sunburn. So enjoy the sun and enjoy your summer, just make sure to do it safely. If you have any questions or doubts, always ask a certified aromatherapist.

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