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Can Essential Oils be Dangerous for your Skin

Essential Oils

Yes, they can. Though skin care may seem simple it is not all that easy. As a dermatologist, I’ve come across many patients who had mishaps with products that seem natural.

Some of them even have posted their experience on Facebook of these aromatic oils. In one such case, the person applied essential oil and went on her daily routine.

The next day, she noticed irritation where she had put the oils. She thought it could be just a rash and ignored. Over period of few days, she developed blisters which were due to chemical burns.

This is a classic phytophoto burns which had seen few times. What happened to her is called a ‘phytophoto dermatitis’. ‘Phyto’ means natural plant compounds, and ‘photo’ means UV rays. The combination of certain natural plant compounds and UV rays cause a rash on the skin that is much like a burn. This is a phytotoxic reaction and not an allergy, it is more like a sunburn. The redness and burning starts in a few hours after sun exposure, and gradually worsens.

Why Essential Oils Cause Burns and Discoloration When Exposed to Sun (UV Rays)?

Natural oils contain compounds called furo-coumarins, which are photosensitizers, meaning they intensely increase the skin’s sensitivity to UV light. So, when exposed to UVA rays (which are cancer-causing rays from the sun), the skin burns.

Even many perfumes used contain these ingredients, especially bergamont, the fragrant natural oil but now has been banned and therefore now less likely to cause sun sensitivity.

My Recommendations For Using Essential Oils Safely?

Essential oils can cause more than sun sensitivity. They more commonly cause skin allergy. So don't apply them directly to skin. Here’s why:

A full strength essential oil is called ‘neat’. When neat oil is applied directly to skin, it is not just dangerous but toxic too. Hence, do not use or formulate products containing essential oils with more than a 2% concentration. Many natural skin care brands dilute the oils with other ingredients to reduce concentration.

Essential oils may even cause allergy. Allergy is an entirely different reaction than sun toxic burn. This will be a lifelong problem, preventing you from using an oil ever again. Allergy is when your immune system reacts against something. The classic example is poison oak or ivy. Lower concentration exposure is less likely to incite allergic response, though not even that guarantees safety.

Therefore I always recommend my patients that always check for aromatherapy scent or perfume sensitivity by putting on underside of elbow and wait for 5 minutes. Any redness or swelling is sign of sensitivity or allergy.

What Other Plant Materials Cause Phototoxic Skin Reaction?

These are the more common ones

  • Lime and all citrus

  • Yarrow

  • Fennel

  • Parsley

  • St. John’s wort

  • Mustard

  • Bergamont

  • Wild and garden parsnip

  • Wild and garden carrot

  • Fig

  • Angelica

Citrus on your skin plus sun is a skin disaster.

What Can You Do If You Also Get A Phototoxic Reaction?

Nothing supersedes Prevention.

If you coming into contact with citrus or any of the plants listed above, wash your skin immediately with warm water and soap. Some of the compounds may have got absorbed into your skin, so keep away from the sun.

However once the reaction burns, it is too late to stop. Only thing you can do is wound care. This includes

Wash the skin clean with cool water and gentle soap.

See a dermatologist, because this rash can scar and will definitely hyper-pigment.

For more information and queries, contact Dr Gauri's Skin & Hair Clinic at 702-464-3430.

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