This mouthful of a word obviously wouldn't fit in a Buffet song, but dermatologist Snehal Amin, MD, says it's still a term worth noting when the UV index is high. "Phytophotodermatitis occurs when light causes a skin reaction," says Dr. Amin. "The prefix 'phyto-' means plant, so a phytophotodermatitis is a rash caused by the combination of a plant and sunlight. The most common example of this is margarita dermatitis." Yes, you read that right: "margarita dermatitis."
Now, let's be clear. You're not going to get margarita dermatitis from sipping a margarita. The citrus has to make contact with the skin to cause any sort of reaction, so you're far more likely to get this skin irritation if you're bartending for your pals and you wind up accidentally squirting lime juice on your arm or hands. And it's not just a margarita issue—you can also experience phytophotodermatitis when other plants (like celery, other citrus fruits, figs, grass, certain weeds, and bergamot oil) touch your skin, then come in contact with UV rays.
"It is a reaction that can occur as a result of the interaction of furocoumarins, which can be present in certain plants and commonly citrus fruits, and UV exposure," says Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist. "It often appears as a linear or irregular appearing patch that may appear red or brown and may be associated with blisters. While it may initially appear red in the first 24 hours after exposure, it can result in hyperpigmentation that may not be noticed for days to weeks after the initial exposure."
According to Dr. Garshick, beach days aren't the only summer fun that can lead to phytophotodermatitis. People who love to spend time outside—like runners or hikers—tend to be exposed to both plants and the sun, and thus are more susceptible to this skin irritation. In addition, folks whose careers expose them to plants and/or UV rays (such as chefs, agricultural workers, or bartenders) will also need to be a little bit more attentive than, say, someone who's just an occasional outdoor margarita-sipper.
Generally speaking, everyone can stave off dermatitis by washing the citrus-splashed area with soap and water before going outside. But if you want to be extra cautious, esthetician Kerry Benjamin, founder of StackedSkincare, recommends avoiding foods that contain furocoumarin entirely. "Stay away from citrus and plants that can cause this. For example, I never sit on grass. I know my skin will get an immediate reaction because I am allergic to grass, and it causes phytophotodermatitis on my skin," says Benjamin. Over time, you may become more attuned to what plant-sun reactions are making your own skin unhappy—and you can make sun-safe decisions from there.
As Dr. Garshick mentioned, though, margarita dermatitis is generally benign and should go away on its own within a few weeks. That said, if you're worried about your case of margarita dermatitis, you can always consult your derm. Now, back to Margaritaville.
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