Essential Oils + Photosensitivity

The next chapter to the sun and skin story addresses a very important theme: do essential oils lead to photosensitivity in the skin? As we shared last month, Beauty Heroes believes daily sunscreen use is a non-negotiable. And we recommend a physical non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen as the safest option. But, that’s not the end of the story. Questions still linger around the use of essential oils in relation to the sun. As it turns out, the unique combination of phytochemicals in every plant determines how they respond to the sun; and some even offer UV protection. Conversely, select commonly used essential oils are considered photosensitizing; which can make skin more sensitive to light. So how can you incorporate the goodness of plants into your suncare routine?

We turned to reigning expert of plant wisdom, Laurel Shaffer, founder of Laurel Whole Plant Organics, to bust a few common myths about using botanicals to restore, repair and protect skin from sun damage. As she details below, it’s all about forming a balanced relationship with the sun.

Essential Oils & Photosensitivity

BH: How do essential oils work on the skin to protect it from UV damage?

Laurel: Essential Oils protect the skin by offering it antioxidant and anti-inflammatory protection. There are some essential oils that have been clinically studied for SPF, and some that have shown minimal SPF activity. However, essential oils absorb very quickly into the skin, and they would have to be applied constantly at full concentration to have a measured effect. I think that their true power lies in their antioxidant activity, by strengthening the overall health of our skin. The sun’s rays are actually not harmful free-radicals themselves. It’s how our own body responds to them that determines the level of free-radical damage we get from UV exposure. If we use antioxidants in and on our body every day, then we are strengthening our body’s response to these rays.

BH: While Beauty Heroes doesn’t advocate for replacing mineral sun protection with only plants, which essential oils do you find are particularly good for sun protection?

Laurel: Carrier Oils have been the most studied in terms of offering SPF. For Carrier Oils, I like Red Raspberry Seed, Avocado, Sesame, Olive, Coconut and Cranberry. For Essential Oils, again, I consider the plant’s antioxidant activity; their ability to protect, support, and repair skin cells. For those, I like Roman Chamomile, Helichrysum, Carrot Seed, and Frankincense. From a formulator’s perspective, I like to formulate with botanicals that offer combination of antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, as well as ‘staying power’. And what I mean by ‘staying power’ is how long the carrier oils stay on the surface of the skin intact to protect the skin before being oxidized themselves by the sun’s rays. Raw, unrefined, fresh oils have a lot more power for protection, while processed or rancid oils can actually be more harmful in the sun – this is why using plants as protection is such an impossible thing to measure, because the state and quality of the plant has to be considered.

Essential Oils & Photosensitivity BH: Why are some essential oils considered photosensitizing? Can you explain?

Laurel: There is an isolated plant constituent family called coumarins that has been found to make us more vulnerable to the sun’s rays. This isolated constituent has been found in essential oils like Grapefruit, Lime, and Bergamot; to name a few. However, there are also mirroring studies that show some Coumarins to be antioxidative against photo damage. So in my opinion, I think it’s safe to say this topic is not well understood by the scientific community as a whole.

BH: Are there any essential oils that you do not recommend wearing if you are going to be out, taking in direct sun for an extended time period?

Laurel: To err on the safe side of any existing ongoing studies: I would not recommend continuously applying those essentials oils I mentioned above undiluted in the sun. But seeing as I feel very comfortable with plants, I don’t think there are any essential oils I would feel uncomfortable using in the sun on myself, especially if I were using them ‘properly’, meaning diluted appropriately. Essential Oils are strong medicine, and are not meant to be used undiluted or improperly: sun care is just a small part of that discussion.

BH: We hear about bergaptene-free bergamot Essential Oil, what is the process used to remove the bergaptene from bergamot and is that safe?

Laurel: When an essential oil is steam distilled, as opposed to expeller pressed like most essential oils, it changes the chemical makeup. Some molecules of the plant don’t transfer over during this process. All bergaptene–free bergamot essential oil really is, is just steam distilled bergamot Oil. That particular constituent just doesn’t come along when its steam distilled. While I believe there chemical processes that also accomplish this, they are not commonly applied to organic ingredients and I’m not familiar with them.