I’m starting a series of posts called Ingredient Insights. My goal with moss/Aqne HAS ALWAYS been to empower my clients so they can make intelligent and informed choices about skincare. There’s a lot of ingredients out there that have reputations and everyone just follows the herd instead of asking “WHY?” or “Is the reason this ingredient is being shunned OR trending even relevant to me?”
I am SO about educating and empowering you guys, so here goes. PS – to be perfectly transparent, some of this is copy-pasted from other stuff I found on the web BUT the overall composition is my own – references listed below. 🙂
I’m spotlighting Bergamot because I recently just read a blog post that was leading to some confusion. I’ll share the facts – I hope I don’t sound like I’m gossiping, I just want you guys to have the background for why I’m writing this and why I chose this particular ingredient.
A blogger recently interviewed some formulators asking them what questions they would ask about a particular brand to “vet” it. One of the answers was checking to see if the brand uses citrus oils (because they are phototoxic) but noting that Bergamot FCF is an exception.
Then I saw there was a lot of confusion – at first people were like – no way Bergamot is super phototoxic and then people were like but Bergamot FCF isn’t and then people were like, oh sweet, off to go put Bergamot oil on my face!
So first things first – there is ABSOLUTELY a huge difference between Bergamot and Bergamot FCF. They are not interchangeable and they are not the same (not even in scent!). PLEASE do not confuse the two.
Bergamot (just plain ol’ Bergamot) w/o the FCF is the MOST phototoxic EO out there, IF it is pressed.
Here’s some notes from an EO practicioner:
“Bergamot essential oil is notorious for its phototoxicity. Topical application of expressed (underline mine) bergamot oil will cause adverse reaction when the skin is exposed to ultraviolet light. This includes bright sunlight, as well as tanning beds, ultraviolet x-ray treatments, etc. While phototoxicity is not a problem with steam distilled bergamot (don’t take this to heart just yet, we’ll circle back to this later), those using the expressed oil topically should avoid exposure to direct sunlight for 6 or 7 hours after application. Some aromatherapists prefer to err on the side of caution and recommend waiting up to 12 hours before exposure. (My notes again here: some very practical advice. Soooo, even with the MOST phototoxic oils, totally ok to apply them at night. 🙂 )
Dermal reactions vary depending on percentage of dilution, length of exposure and individual sensitivity. These adverse reactions range from reddening and blistering of the skin to permanent loss of skin pigmentation. This isn’t simply the stuff of urban aromatherapy legend: for several centuries, it has been well documented that Italian workers in the bergamot industry often suffer complete loss of skin pigmentation from fingertips to elbows due to handling of the fruit.” (Isn’t this fascinating? Also, awful. Which brings me to: natural is by no means always ethical. AT ALL. That’s a hard truth.)
Pigmentation loss is caused by phytochemicals in the the essential oil known as coumarins. Bergamot essential oil contains roughly 3% to 4% coumarins, including bergapten, bergamottin, citropten, and others. Although comprising just a small part of the essential oil, coumarins pack a powerful punch.” (1)
Here’s one of the things we were NEVER taught to be discerning about but it makes ALL the difference in phototoxicity: with citrus oils, there are several ways to get the oil from the peel. You can press or steam distill. ACTUALLY – you can ALSO use CO2 extraction or solvent extraction – but we’ll get into that in a later post. For now, let’s just focus on pressing vs. distilling. Steam distilling USUALLY results in eliminating the phototoxicity concerns.
Here’s a brief overview of each method (3):
Cold Pressing also know as Expression or Expressing is a method of extraction specific to citrus essential oils, such as tangerine, lemon, bergamot, sweet orange, and lime. In older times, expression was done in the form of sponge pressing, which was literally accomplished by hand. The zest or rind of the citrus would first be soaked in warm water to make the rind more receptive to the pressing process. A sponge would then be used to press the rind, thus breaking the essential oil cavities, and absorb the essential oil. Once the sponge was filled with the extraction, it would then be pressed over a collecting container, and there it would stand to allow for the separation of the essential oil and water/juice. The essential oil would finally be siphoned off.
A more modern method of extraction, and less labor-intensive, has been termed the ecuelle a piquer process that involves a prodding, pricking, sticking action to release the essential oil. During this process, the rind of the fruit is placed in a container having spikes that will puncture the peel while the device is rotated. The puncturing of the rind will release the essential oil that is then collected in a small area below the container. The end process is the same as above. The majority of modern expression techniques are accomplished by using machines using centrifugal force. The spinning in a centrifuge separates the majority of essential oil from the fruit juice.
Do you guys feel like we’re all learning together? I LOVE hearing about how stuff was done in the olden days!
Little bit of history for you: Distillation appears to have been practiced throughout ancient times. Based upon the current interpretation of a discovery of an earthenware distillation apparatus, the production or extraction of aromatic oils by means of steam distillation, has been known for 5000 years. Whoa!
During distillation the plant material is placed upon a grid inside the still. Once inside, the still is sealed, and, depending upon the above methods, steam or water/steam slowly breaks through the plant material to remove its volatile constituents. These volatile constituents rise upward through a connecting pipe that leads them into a condenser. The condenser cools the rising vapor back into liquid form. The liquid is then collected in a vehicle below the condenser. Since water and essential oil do not mix, the essential oil will be found on the surface of the water where it is siphoned off. Occasionally an essential oil is heavier than water and is found on the bottom rather than the top, such as with clove essential oil.
Three different types of distillation:
Water Distillation (also know as hydrodistillation)
The plant material comes into direct contact with the water. This method is most often employed with flowers (rose and orange blossoms), as direct steam causes these flowers to clump together making it difficult for steam to pass through.
Water and Steam
This method can be employed with herb and leaf material. During this process, the water remains below the plant material, which has been placed on a grate while the steam is introduced from outside the main still (indirect steam).
This method is the most commonly used. During this process, steam is injected into the still, usually at slightly higher pressures and temperatures than the above two methods.
NOW – check this out. Some citrus oils are ONLY phototoxic if they’ve been pressed, but they are NOT phototoxic if they’ve been distilled.
So it is slightly oversimplifying things to say that you have to avoid all citrus oils! The truth is first you have to know what TYPE of citrus it is, then you have to KNOW how the oil was created. Both of those factors determine phototoxicity.
Other factors include the type of product the oil is in – if it is a cleanser or a soap or hair care product or anything you wash off the skin, then there is generally no risk of phototoxicity. Same thing goes for if you keep the UV rays from reaching the oils via sunscreen or clothing – no risk.
Here are some examples, coming back to our bergamot.
So Bergamot pressed, as I was saying before is highly phototoxic.
Ugh oh – I feel another question coming on:
What exactly makes an essential oil phototoxic?
Photosensitization and phototoxicity can occur when certain essential oil constituents, particularly furanocoumarins, (natural chemicals found in particular essential oils) react when exposed to Ultraviolet UVA light.
Coumarins include bergapten, bergamottin, citropten, and others. Although comprising just a small part of the essential oil, coumarins pack a powerful punch. YET, along with linalool and linalyl acetate (other chemicals typically found in EOs), they are responsible for calming effects on the nervous system. SO – another point I want to emphasize – they are not INHERENTLY bad. Almost nothing is. It’s just about using citrus EOs properly and understanding all the possible applications.
Ok, returning to Bergamot once again. It is possible to RECTIFY (the term used to mean “chemically alter”) Bergamot once it has been pressed to REMOVE all the fouranocoumarins, hence the FCF (stands for FouranoCoumarin Free). So that’s the difference between Bergamot and Bergamot FCF and it’s a BIG One. Phototoxic vs not. Different chemical composition! Also, the aromatherapy changes. Regular bergamot smells sweeter and more creamy than Bergamot FCF which has a sharper, less dimentional scent.
Speaking of scents changing, that’w why the majority of citrus oils you’ll find are cold pressed. That preserves the authenticity and aromatic bouquet of the scent better than steam distilling. Steam distilling tends to make the scents a little more harsh. But fun fact – speaking of being good eco-stewards, cold pressing is way less efficient and more wasteful than steam distilling. It yields only about 1.5 pounds instead of about 25 pounds of oil for every ton of fresh fruit — but the result is a light, subtle, fresh aroma reminiscent of the fresh peel, not a harsh bitter scent. (5)
Get this: Lemon and Lime are both phototoxic IF pressed, but NOT phototoxic if distilled. I did NOT know that! How can you tell whether they are pressed or distilled? Any reputable EO supplier shares this info. So you can always ask a formulator to share that info with you.
And then there are citrus oils that are not phototoxic either way – steam or pressing. Some examples are: Mandarin, Orange and Tangerine. Here are some tables for you to peruse further to get a better handle on phototoxic oils:
Essential Oil Phototoxicity Tables
Here’s one from (2):
And another from (4):
LASTLY, there is one final thing to consider – the CONCENTRATION of the phototoxic oil. Those workers with pigmented arms? They were “applying” Bergamot oil at 100% concentration!
Usually formulators including EOs at less than 1%. For example, my beloved Beurre Celeste DOES contain cold pressed organic lemon oil BUT at a concentration of 0.1%. That means that in every jar there are only 2 drops for the whole 2oz. After you rinse BC off, the risk of phototoxicity is non-existent.
I will update this article when I have a definitive % that is the cut-off for safe vs. not safe for sun exposure, but err on the side of caution and always apply sunblock if you’re going outside during the day and you’ve applied a product that contains phototoxic citrus oils.
To recap, there are 4 things to consider when confronted with a citrus oil. Rather than immediately panicking about phototoxicity, check:
1 – Type of citrus fruit
2 – How the oil was obtained + was it rectified
3 – Concentration of the oil
4 – Application of the product
WAIT – actually 5 things. IF the oil is pressed, it is important to make sure it is organic. Citrus is a very heavily sprayed fruit and it’s the peel that is sprayed – the exact same part of the fruit used for the EO. Cold pressed non-organic EOs are at very high risk for pesticide contamination.
5 – Organic
Want more about all the different types of citrus oils?
Did that help? Do you want more articles like this? Did this article make you look at citrus oils differently?