Phytodermatitis and Aromatic Plants

Phytodermatitis and Aromatic Plants

Phytodermatitis is caused by an allergic, irritating, or severe reaction to contact with plants. Just as some essential oils are known to cause photosensitivity, some plants have the ability to be either/both a phytodermatitis reactor and a phytophotodermatitis reactor. Here is a quick introduction to some of the aromatic plants that may cause one or both of these reactions if you are an aromatic gardener, herbalist, distiller, or plant cultivator.

Types of Phytodermatitis

Phytodermatitis, literally “plant dermatitis, ”causes the skin to become itchy, red, sore, painful, swollen, and eczema-like. Phytophotodermatitis is a specific reaction to plants, that have a high level of furocoumarins, combined with exposure to sunlight. It is not an immunologic reaction. Specific symptoms of phytophotodermatitis include a headache, nausea, fever, and chills. Left untreated for a long time, or constant exposure to the irritant, it may cause skin cancer.

Phytodermatitis can also be caused by:

  • a specific chemical reaction to that contained within a plant. Injury to the skin exposes the person to the potential of a reaction.

  • Allergic contact dermatitis by previous exposure to plant and by someone with a sensitized immune system.

  • Contact urticaria from exposure to irritant hairs of a plant.3

Types of Aromatic Plants That May Cause Phytodermatitis

Aromatic plants that can cause phytodermatitis include the following:

  • phytophotodermatitis – Apiaceae plant family members including angelica, celery, and carrot (Queen Anne’s Lace); Rutaceae plant family members including rue, bergamot, and lime; Moraceae plant family members including fig (not used in aromatherapy); Fabaceae plant family members including Copaiba balsam.

  • St John’s wort (Hypericaceae).

  • Rose – a combined reaction to the chemical components contained within the plant and by injury from the thorns of the plant.

  • Yarrow – an irritating reaction to the chemical components contained within the plant.

  • Borage – and other members of the Boraginaceae plant family may cause phytodermatitis.

  • Asteraceae plant family members contain chemical components such as sesquiterpene lactones that can cause allergic contact dermatitis.

Plants as Healers and Irritants

Just as essential oils are used to soothe and heal many problems, plants can be used in the same way. However, the opposite is also true. Both plants and essential oils can be the cause of problems such as (phyto) dermatitis. This is just a brief look at the subject of phytodermatitis and warrants further study.



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