Too much exposure to UV sunlight can overwhelm the body’s immune system, resulting in sunburn. Some essential oils contain compounds that reduce the symptoms of sunburn and promote healing.
Many active ingredients found in essential oils have more than one positive regenerative, or protective effect. As most essential oils contain more than one active ingredient, many have a long list of potentially associated health benefits.
Here we will look at eight of the best essential oils for sunburn and what the science says about them, along with more information.
Fast facts on essential oils for sunburn:
- Many essential oils have long been used in traditional and herbal medicines.
- Researchers are still testing the therapeutic and clinical use of essential oils.
- The most common side effect associated with the use of essential oils is skin irritation.
What does the scientific evidence say?
The risk of sunburn might be reduced by using vitamin E essential oil, as it may absorb UV rays.
To date, no large-scale human studies exploring the association between essential oil use and sunburn healing have been carried out.
Many smaller-scale studies have shown promising results, however.
Case study from the Journal of Pediatric Nursing
A 2017 study looked at two young girls with similarly extensive burns, medical histories, and treatment, but one girl was also given an essential oil mixture.
The girl who received the oil treatment developed only one hospital-acquired infection compared to the other girl who developed two infections in her bloodstream and four hospital-acquired infections.
Also, the girl receiving oil treatment stayed in the intensive care unit for 1 day less and in the hospital a total of 4 days less than the other girl. This is a small study, and more extensive studies are needed, but this does provide some evidence for the use of essential oils in the treatment of burns.
Eight best essential oils for sunburn
Of the few studies exploring the benefits of essential oils for sunburn recovery, most have concluded that oils need to be applied as soon as possible after sunburn to receive the benefits.
Most studies also support the recommendation that essential oils should not be applied to areas where the skin is very thin or near heavily hormone-regulated organs, like the genitals, eyelids, mouth, and breasts.
1. Vitamin E essential oil
Some studies have suggested that vitamin E may reduce the risk of sunburn by:
- acting as an antioxidant
- absorbing UV rays
- helping thicken the outermost layer of the skin
Vitamin E essential oil has also been shown to help improve the ability of the skin to maintain moisture and reduce inflammation.
The only known side effect associated with vitamin E essential oil use is minor skin irritation. Always dilute essential oils.
2. Vitamin C essential oil
Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, has been shown to have several benefits that may help reduce symptoms of sunburn and improve healing time.
Studied health benefits of ascorbic acid include:
- protecting against UVA and UVB rays
- improving inflammatory skin symptoms and conditions
- improving collagen production, the compound that gives skin its elasticity
- correcting pigmentation problems to improve the skin’s natural protection against UV rays
The only known complication associated with vitamin C oil used topically is skin flushing, or redness and warmth.
3. Peppermint essential oil
Though peppermint (Mentha piperita) contains several active ingredients with known health benefits, the most powerful by far is menthol.
Studied health benefits of menthol include:
- antiseptic (able to kill or discourage the growth of infectious agents)
- vasoconstrictor, narrowing inflamed blood vessels
Quality peppermint oil should contain at least 44 percent free menthol.
The only known side effect associated with menthol is minor skin irritation and redness.
4. Lavender essential oil
Lavender essential oil may have properties that are anti-inflammatory, which may reduce redness and swelling.
Extracts from the lavender plant (Lavandula officinalis) have at least seven active ingredients known to promote skin regeneration and boost immune function.
Lavender essential oil is also known to have properties that are:
This helps reduce symptoms of pain, redness, and swelling while also lowering the risk of infection.
Lavender has been associated with the growth of breasts in very young or pubescent boys. However, symptoms went away within a few months after individuals stopped using the oil.
Possible symptoms of lavender allergy include:
- skin rash
- nausea and vomiting
- substantial inflammation or swelling of the skin
In rare cases, lavender has also been known to cause an allergic response.
5. Tea tree essential oil
Extract from the needle-like leaves of the tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) plant has been used as a herbal remedy for a variety of health problems including most skin conditions.
The active ingredients in tea tree oil give it properties that are:
- immune boosting
Tea tree oil has been associated in rare cases with serious complications. Known side effects of tea tree oil use include:
- red, itching, burning skin
- very dry skin
- scaling skin
- fluid build up in or under the skin
- stomach pain
- unexplained weakness
- slow or unsteady movements
- in some individuals, tea tree oil can cause a blistering disorder
- counteract other medications
- unusual blood changes
6. Geranium essential oil
Extracts from the shrub geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) contains at least 12 active ingredients that have properties that are:
Geranium oil has also been proven useful as a sedative and nerve tonic, so may provide even more powerful pain relief from sunburn.
Skin irritation is the only known side effect associated with geranium oil use.
7. Chamomile essential oil
Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) has been used for centuries, potentially even thousands of years, as a multi-use herbal remedy because of its soothing and calming properties.
With more than 10 active ingredients that have known health benefits, chamomile oil has established anti-inflammatory properties. It has also been shown to promote or increase wound healing.
Chamomile essential oil is considered a staple herbal remedy and used for a wide array of skin conditions, including boils, sunburn, and psoriasis.
Though rare, chamomile has been known to cause a full body allergic response.
8. Eucalyptus essential oil
Eucalyptus essential oil may help with sunburn recovery.
Extracts from the evergreen plant eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), is known to contain compounds proven to be:
They have also been shown to have anti-proliferative, or anti-cancer, action, by preventing the spread of cancerous cells. Do not take eucalyptus oil orally.
Though they rarely occur, eucalyptus oil has been linked to several side effects including:
- allergic rash
- difficulty breathing, especially in children
- drug interactions
Are there any side effects
Never swallow essential oils as some are toxic.
Essential oils should never be applied directly to the skin or mixed with water. Before applying essential oils to their skin, people must dilute the oils in a carrier oil. The usual recipe is 3 to 5 drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of carrier oil.
Carrier oils are commonly mineral oil, coconut oil, or sweet almond oil. Essential oils can also be infused into the air to be inhaled as aromatherapy.
Complications associated with the use of essential oils include:
- skin sensitization or irritation, especially to oils that contain phenols and aldehydes
- photosensitivity, or sensitivity to the sun
- eye and mucous membrane irritation
- in rare cases, allergy
- if oils are inhaled, they may also cause mild lung, throat, or mouth irritation
- if ingested may cause mild gastrointestinal discomfort
The United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) do not monitor herbs and essential oils, so before buying, it is always best to research brands for quality, purity, and a good reputation.
Who should not use essential oils?
Individuals more at risk for developing side effects, or who should avoid essential oil use, include:
- pregnant or breastfeeding women
- people with immune or inflammatory conditions, especially involving the skin
- people with pigment or photosensitive disorders
- people with allergies to common essential oil compounds, such as alcohols and aldehydes
- infants and young boys
- essential oils should not be taken orally
More at-home remedies for sunburn
Natural items can be added to mixtures or used alongside essential oils to reduce sunburn symptoms and healing time.
Common additives used in at-home sunburn remedies include:
- aloe vera
- apple cider vinegar
- coconut oil
- black tea
- baking soda