Phototoxic Oil Safety

Did you know that some citrus essential oils are not phototoxic?  If you’ve been avoiding all citrus oils out of concerns over phototoxicity, you can still use a few citrus oils without worrying about potential phototoxic skin reactions.

Whilst marking one of my students case studies the other day, I observed that very few citrus oils were being used in her blends.  On asking her why she told me of her fear of using citrus oils in case she caused a phototoxic reaction to one of her clients.  Maybe I was a bit too enthusiastic when teaching about the safety of essential oils! 

I was pleased this came up as it gave me an opportunity to clear up the safety rules around phototoxic oils for this particular student, and for everyone else using essential oils.  

Can you safely use phototoxic essential oils  in topical blends - blends that are put directly on the skin?  

Yes, absolutely!! 

Before I explain how, let me explain what it means for an essential oil to be phototoxic.

Phototoxic essential oils can cause skin reactions in sunlight and UV light (such as tanning beds). These reactions are no fun, and some people choose to avoid using citrus essential oils in topical blends altogether just to be on the safe side.
But there’s good news! You can “be on the safe side” and still use citrus essential oils!

First of all, there are some citrus essential oils that don’t cause phototoxic reactions at all. These are:
  • Green Mandarin (Citrus reticulata)
  • Distilled Lime (Citrus aurantifolia)
  • Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis)
  • Yuzu (Citrus junos)
  • Tangerine (Citrus × tangerina)
Did you notice I pointed out that distilled Lime is not phototoxic? That’s because Lime is unique—it can be cold-pressed or distilled, and the production method determines whether it’s phototoxic. Cold-pressed Lime is phototoxic, but distilled Lime is not. Other citruses (like Lemon) can be distilled as well, but it’s not a common practice.

Now I've pointed out the citrus essential oils that aren’t phototoxic. What about the ones that are? You can still use those in topical blends, as long as you dilute them in carriers appropriately.

Here are the guidelines for each phototoxic oil and how many drops you can safely use in 1 oz (30 ml) of carrier. 

  • Cold-Pressed/Expressed Bergamot – 2.4 drops per oz (Just use 2 drops to keep it simple)
  • Cold-Pressed/Expressed Lemon – 12 drops per oz
  • Cold-Pressed/Expressed Lime – 4.2 drops per oz (Just use 4 drops)
  • Cold-Pressed/Expressed Grapefruit – 24 drops per oz
As long as you stay within these dilution guidelines, feel free to use these citrus oils in your topical blends. Don’t let the word “phototoxic” make you shy away. 

Citrus oils want to inspire happy feelings! They’re wonderful in body oils and lotions, digestion creams, and pain relief blends. Just be mindful of how many drops per ounce you’re using, and you’ll do just fine. 

Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young’s book -  Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals, 2nd Edition 
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