Margaritas and sunshine just belong together, don’t they? It sounds delicious, but if you’re not careful, it could result in a condition called “margarita dermatitis.” It turns out that when certain plant compounds come into contact with the skin they make the skin mores sensitive to sunlight. Lime juice is one of those compounds—hence the moniker, margarita dermatitis.
The real name is actually phytophotodermatitis and refers to a chemical reaction that makes skin hypersensitive to ultraviolet light. The result is a burning rash that commonly appears on the hands, wrists, forearms, or lower legs. Sometimes phytophotodermatitis results in blistering, and its key characteristic is that it burns rather than feeling itchy.
Phytophotodermatitis happens in two steps: first the skin is exposed to a photosensitizing substance, and, second, that skin is exposed to UV light from the sun. When phytophotodermatitis occurs, a red, swollen rash develops about 12 to 36 hours after contact and is then replaced by an area of discoloration that can last for months or years. Phytophotodermatitis can be mistaken for several other conditions, but the key clue is that the rash often appears in the shape of drip marks or handprints. (In fact, the bruise-like marks in the shapes of fingers are sometimes mistaken for child abuse.)
Phytophotodermatitis is the result of photosensitizing chemicals called furocoumarins that are found in certain plants and fruits. These compounds are at their highest levels in spring and summer, which increases the likelihood of exposure. They are found in celery, parsley, citrus fruits, parsnips, figs, Queen Anne’s lace, bergamot, and more.
Exposure can result from fruit drippings, airborne particles, or scratches from branches. Phytophotodermatitis is more common in people who handle fruits and vegetables, such as bartenders, grocers or farm workers. Sometimes kids who play in grasses that come from the same family as Queen Anne’s lace will develop the condition. In addition, some natural perfumes or essential oils contain oils that come from wild plants containing the compound that causes phytophotodermatitis.
To avoid contracting phytophotodermatitis, be careful to thoroughly wash your skin after coming into contact with lime or lemon juice or other plant compounds associated with the condition. In addition, it’s important to apply sunscreen and limit sun exposure for healthy skin.
Phytophotodermatitis isn’t cause for alarm and shouldn’t stop you from enjoying that margarita or spending time in the sun (having applied sunscreen, of course). Just exercise a little caution.
Most cases of phytophotodermatitis are mild and don’t require a trip to the doctor. Treat the rash as you would treat a poison ivy rash—with cool compresses, hydrocortisone creams, and oral antihistamines. In severe cases, treatment might involve steroid pills.
So, get thee outside and enjoy summer—just make sure the lime stays in the glass.