- A margarita burn, also known as phytophotodermatitis, is a skin reaction that occurs when lime juice gets on your skin and is exposed to ultraviolet A rays.
- Most skin reactions from margarita burns are mild and may not require medical treatment.
- Serious margarita burns should be treated by a medical professional.
- You can avoid margarita burn this summer by wearing protective clothing, washing your hands, and drinking responsibly.
Sipping on a margarita in the sunshine is a favorite pastime, especially during summer gatherings.
But the little-known health risk of enjoying a margarita (or three) extends beyond a hangover.
Spending too much time in the sun with a margarita can lead to second-degree burns and itchy rashes if lime juice splashes on your skin.
If a margarita is your drink of choice, here’s what you need to know about the “margarita burn” and how to avoid it this summer.
What is a margarita burn?
Margarita burn is a condition known as phytophotodermatitis.
“The term ‘phyto’ means plant, ‘photo’ refers to light, and ‘dermatitis’ is the inflammation of the skin,” explained Dr. Keira Barr, a dual board certified dermatologist and founder of Resilient Health Institute.
In other words, if you’re out in the sun for a few hours and lime juice drips on your skin, you could develop a skin reaction, that worsens on skin that’s wet or sweaty.
Margarita burns result when furocoumarin, a chemical compound found in plants, reacts with sunlight. Furocoumarin is found in limes and citrus fruits, along with celery, figs, fennel, and many other plants.
“This chemical can become activated by UVA rays,” Barr said. “The furocoumarin is absorbed into the cells of the top layer of the skin, your epidermis, resulting in burning, redness, and blisters.”
Margarita burns typically start as a rash that forms within 24 hours of exposure.
The rash can then can grow into a cluster of painful blisters at the point of contact a day or two later.
Once the swelling goes down, the blisters usually turn into dark patches or streaks (post-inflammatory pigmentation) lasting for weeks or months.
How long does it take to recover from ‘margarita burn’?
People with a mild case of phytophotodermatitis may never even notice it, as the condition tends to clear up on its own. But worse cases may develop into severe blistering that can land you in the hospital.
“The degree of photosensitivity is based on the amount of juice and its concentration,” Barr explained.
“People who were squeezing a lot of limes or had a drink spilled on them and then had a lot of sun exposure may have significant blistering, like a second- or third-degree thermal burn. They might have open sores and wounds that require medical attention.”
Doctors can typically diagnose phytophotodermatitis with a physical examination and asking questions about a patient’s recent activity.
But it’s important to note the condition looks like many other more common health issues and is often misdiagnosed as a fungal skin infection, sunburn, poison ivy rash, or a chemical burn.
Treatment for margarita burn will vary depending on the severity of the reaction.
“You might need supportive care like you would for sunburn, including cool compresses, anti-inflammatory medication (like ibuprofen), or topical steroids,” Barr said.
“People with severe blistering or skin that’s sloughing off will face a risk of secondary infection, so it needs to be treated like a burn,” said Barr.
How to avoid margarita burn
While it’s helpful to be aware of the risk of margarita burns, it’s possible to enjoy your favorite citrusy cocktail under the sun this summer without damaging your skin.
Protect yourself from the sun by applying sunscreen and wearing appropriate clothing when outdoors during peak hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) in the summer months. A wide-brimmed hat, pants, and long sleeves can help protect your skin from margarita burn, especially if your clothing includes SPF.
Be mindful when drinking margaritas or coming into contact with any fruits or plants containing furocoumarin, especially outdoors or near a window.
After preparing margaritas, washing your hands thoroughly is a good idea. Of course, practicing responsible drinking and knowing your limits is helpful.
Margarita burn is a skin reaction that occurs when lime juice makes contact with the skin and is exposed to sunlight.
Most skin reactions from margarita burns are mild and may not require medical treatment. If your reaction is severe, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible.
You can avoid margarita burn by wearing sun-protective clothing, washing your hands thoroughly, and drinking responsibly.
“The bottom line is that you should keep your limes in your glass, and if you do happen to splash some lime juice on your skin while enjoying the sunshine, be sure to wash it off right away so your happy hour stays happy,” Barr said.