Making cocktails can be risky: You could cut yourself with a knife while slicing citrus fruits, a la avocado hand. You could set yourself on fire as you attempt to navigate the infamous flaming shot. You could hit yourself in the head as you vigorously shake a cocktail, or develop or worsen a stress injury in your hands and arms.
But there’s a lesser known danger that could strike in the middle of a sunny afternoon: It’s called citrus burn, and you better not underestimate it. Citrus burns, aka phytophotodermatitis, aka lime disease (not Lyme disease, mind you), can turn a summer Margarita drinking session into a seriously regrettable trip to the emergency room. Here’s how to avoid it.
Know Thy Enemy
Phytophotodermatitis is a phototoxic reaction between the chemical compound furocoumarins (a photosensitizer found in the little green citrus fruit) and ultraviolet A radiation. The chemicals make skin super-sensitive to sunlight, which causes it to burn more easily than normal. Limes aren’t the only culprit to inflict their namesake disease. Lemons, carrots, celery, parsnips, figs, parsley and bergamot oranges are all armed with the same photosensitizers. Adding injury to injury, other factors like wet skin, sweating and heat can all worsen the effects of lime disease.
How to Avoid Getting Burned
There are a couple of things you can do to prevent burns, depending on your level of care. The most extreme option, if you have a high tolerance for socially awkward situations, is to wear gloves and long sleeves as you slice your citrus—granted, not a great option for outdoor activities, especially when the sun is beating down. Instead, you can prepare your limes inside, away from the sunlight, before taking your drinks outside. This will reduce the chance that lime juice has any time to interact with the sun’s rays.
Whether or not you prep your drinks inside, soap and water easily clears away any lingering citrus on your skin. Be sure to wash your hands after making drinks, and you should be safe.
How to Know if You’ve Been Burned
Lime burns look like poison oak—so much so that doctors often confuse emergency room patients’ symptoms for poison ivy or oak. Symptoms of a citrus burn usually emerge about 24 hours after initial contact and start with redness and irritation. About 48-72 hours after juice and sunlight go to work on your skin, you’ll experience peak groty “eruptions” as the burn blisters into a disgusting bulbous mass that follows the path of the juice stain like an itchy, sensitive Jackson Pollack.
How to Treat a Burn
A minor first-degree burn just needs moisturizer to treat sensitivity, plus sunblock to protect the vulnerable area from more damage. Second-degree burns warrant a trip to the doctor, who will drain the blisters. Then, patients will need to apply antibiotics and gauze daily until the burns are fully healed.
How Long Will the Scar Last?
Long after the swelling and sensitivity fade away, victims of lime disease are left with a dark brown splotch where the blister once erupted. But don’t worry about covering up this embarrassing spotty tan forever—the patches fade within a few months. So, this summer of fun may be seriously hampered, but by pool season next year, you should be fully recovered (and more prepared for how to prevent it). If you are truly so self-conscious of your burn marks that you must do something to cover them up, hydroquinone will lighten the dark patches somewhat. We say wear your scars proudly as badges of your courageous summer bartending.