Next time you’re sipping margaritas on the patio, be extra careful when squeezing that fresh lime into your drink. The parts of your skin that have been exposed to both the fruit and the sun may be susceptible to phytophotodermatitis, a form of extreme sunburn.
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What does this mouthful of a term mean? Here’s a breakdown:
- Phyto means “plant.”
- Photo means “light” or “sun.”
- Dermatitis means “skin rash.”
Phytophotodermatitis, then, is the skin’s exaggerated response to the sun, resulting in light-to-severe blistering that may look like sun poisoning or a rash.
Why it happens
Dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD explains that some plants and fruits — especially citrus fruits — contain furocoumarins, an organic chemical compound that can make skin more sensitive to the sun and worsen the effects of sunburn.
“Typically phytophotodermatitis is a topical reaction, where you’ve spilled something on yourself,” she says, “but it can also happen from eating celery soup, as celery contains furocoumarins.”
Foods that can lead to phytophotodermatitis include:
- Citrus fruits (especially limes and bergamot oranges).
- Pelea anisata (often used in Hawaiian leis).
- Saint John’s Wort.
- Wild dill.
- Wild parsley.
- Wild parsnips.
“I commonly see phytophotodermatitis when somebody has been barbecuing on a sunny afternoon and having drinks with limes in them, like margaritas or beers with a lime squeezed in,” Dr. Piliang says. “Anything where they’re cutting and squeezing limes and splashing the juice on themselves and then enjoying the sunshine.”
Dr. Piliang says once, a patient had a poison ivy-like rash on the top of her forearms after mowing the lawn. Turns out, she’d been making guacamole beforehand, and some of the lime had gotten onto her skin before she headed outdoors.
Phytophotodermatitis is sometimes called “margarita burn,” for obvious reasons. A subset is known as “berloque dermatitis,” a 1920s reference to the fact that it frequently affected people who wore perfumes and colognes containing bergamot oil, which is derived from furocoumarin-containing oranges.
Who it afflicts
Fair-skinned folks and those who are typically sensitive to the sun are at higher risk for phytophotodermatitis, while individuals with darker skin don’t usually see such reactivity.
Hospitality industry, beware: Chefs, bartenders, and others who work with food may be more likely to be exposed to foods containing furocoumarins, especially when serving on patios, working at pool bars, and the like.
And because plenty of wild plants contain…