Skin reaction after gardening. Think phytophotodermatitis!

With handy job and garden tips! Doing jobs in the garden in particular can cause skin problems. Dermatologist Francis Wu experienced it himself 😉

Phenomenon: phytophotodermatitis

Is a mouthful and means phyto = plant; photo= light; dermatitis = skin inflammation. It is a toxic reaction of simultaneous exposure to sunlight and contact with certain plants that occur freely in nature or in the garden. It has nothing to do with a sun allergy or a disturbed immune system.

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Uva Rays Intensity During The Day Phytophotodermatitis

But what exactly?

Certain herbs, plants and flowers contain substances that make the skin more sensitive to sunlight after contact, also known as photosensitization. After activation with substances such as psoralens (furanocoumarin) and anthraquinone derivatives on the skin with ultraviolet A (UVA) sunlight, a sunburn reaction occurs at contact points.

UVA rays are present with relatively equal intensity during all daylight hours throughout the year. UVA rays penetrate deep into the dermis and cause free radical formation in the skin. In addition to photosensitization, this can also cause skin aging such as wrinkle formation, fine lines, skin discolorations and even skin cancer.

The Usual Suspects – which plants/vegetables/herbs can cause this?

Vegetables/herbs/fruits: Aniseed, Celery, Citrus fruits (particularly bergamot, lime and lemons) Dill, Parsnip, Parsley, Fig and Carrotn. Hogweed, Buckwheat, Angelica, Chervil, Lace Flower, St. St. John’s Wort and herbe of grace

How do you recognize it?

After initial contact with one of the substances, after a few hours to 48 hours, usually on the hands, forearms, lower legs and sometimes also in the face after wiping off sweat, a sharply defined elongated redness, bumps and even blisters may appear. It can be itchy, burning or painful.

In the days to weeks that follow, rust-red to deep dark spots first appear. These spots slowly disappear over months or even years.

Forearm of Francis Wu, one day after contact with possibly a hogweed plant.

Treatment in different stages

And that leaves blisters… how do you treat that?

If the blister is not bothering you, keep the blister whole and protect it with an ointment and plaster.

If the blisters do irritate you or hinder your movement, such as on the bending side of your wrist, fingers, knees, first carefully disinfect the blister with a disinfectant.

Cut the blister at the edge, let the fluid drain out and use the blister cap as a wound cover and finally cover the blister cap with an ointment gauze and cover it with a plaster.

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Allow the blister to dry with zinc ointment. You can possibly calm itching with an antihistamine pill (for sale at the drugstore) or, if worse, with a hormone ointment from the doctor.

If there is an inflammation, the skin is locally red and feels warm and painful. Then ask your doctor for an antibiotic ointment and if it gets worse, it is wise to go to the dermatologist.

After the irritation, pigment spots can appear

The rust spots and dark spots, as we call them, are a cosmetic nuisance. Even though it may disappear over time, it is important to protect these spots from the sun to prevent them from getting worse.

Use a sunscreen with SPF30 for this. A mineral sunscreen works immediately, is hypoallergenic and has broad ultraviolet coverage.

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Pigment spots can be lightened, for example, with Niacinamide (vitamin B3), Vitamin A (tretinoin, retinol), Arbutin or Hydroquinone.

Helpful tips

Protection: wear airy long sleeves and long trousers, use gloves. Track down the ‘usual suspects’ first. Pay close attention when harvesting celery, carrots, figs and herbs. Pruning rue of grace, which can grow up to 1.2 m high, the sap on the skin can also cause skin irritation.

Be careful

Certain perfumes and Eau de Cologne contain bergamot oil containing furanocoumarin which can irritate the skin in combination with sunlight.

Some brands have Furocoumarin free (FCF) perfumes in which the photoreactive substance has been removed. St. John’s wort cream is used to soothe the skin and relax muscles. This cream can photosensitize skin and burn skin.

Wishing everyone a safe spring and summer!


Harshman J, Quan Y, Hsiang D. Phytophotodermatitis: Rash with many faces. Can Fam Physician. 2017;63(12):938–940.

While you are here

Sometimes it is unavoidable and then a hormone ointment is needed to treat a skin reaction. The correct use of a hormone ointment and good guidance from your doctor is safe and gives a lot of improvement in complaints.

More about hormone ointments

Picture of Dr. Francis Wu

Dr. Francis Wu

Dr. Francis Wu, een vooraanstaande dermatoloog, is de drijvende kracht achter Iconic Elements. Hij heeft sinds 2004 zijn expertise ingezet om een veilige en effectieve huidverzorgingslijn te creëren, geschikt voor zowel gezonde huid als huidproblemen. Iconic Elements, opgericht in 2016, is de eerste brede skincare lijn in Nederland ontwikkeld door een dermatoloog. Als medisch specialist streeft Dr. Wu naar het bevorderen van het welzijn van mensen door hoogwaardige en effectieve huidverzorgingsproducten te bieden. De proefdiervrije en vegan producten vermijden schadelijke chemicaliën en bevatten natuurlijke ingrediënten.
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