Can You Use Lemon For Your Skin? Experts Agree: Not So Fast
There's nothing like a DIY beauty recipe to elevate your skin care routine. We're talking honey face masks, sugar scrubs, and everything in between. The only catch? Not all natural ingredients are safe for the skin.
Take lemon juice, for example. The ingredient, which is known for its citrusy scent and astringent properties, used to be a popular component of DIY hacks. However, in recent years, using lemon juice for the skin has become controversial due to its side effects and risks.
Reported skin benefits of lemon.
According to some, lemon juice offers several theoretical benefits when used topically. However, don't just go slather on a lemon cocktail and hope for the best. As you'll read later in this article, the bad may outnumber the good—especially when used incorrectly. But, in case you're curious, here are some of those supposed benefits:
- Exfoliates dead skin cells. According to Neda Mehr, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Pure Dermatology Cosmetic & Hair Center, lemon juice contains alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA) such as glycolic acid. Such acids are commonly used in skin care, as they increase cell turnover and slough away dead skin cells. As a result, many folks use lemon juice in hopes of reducing dullness and brightening the skin.
- Promotes even skin tone. Due to the potential exfoliating properties of lemon juice, people use it to reduce hyperpigmentation. Exfoliation, after all, can help remove pigmented cells and even out your skin tone. "Lemon juice [also] contains citric acid and vitamin C, which can lighten the skin," says Mehr.
- Decreases oil production. Lemon juice is often hailed as a godsend for oily skin. That's because it's an astringent, meaning it tightens pores and controls excess sebum. This is due to the lemon juice's acidity, as well as its AHA content.
- Increases collagen production. The body needs vitamin C to synthesize collagen, the main structural protein in the skin. Using vitamin-C-rich ingredients can help support your intake of the nutrient, and ultimately, collagen production.
- Offers antioxidants. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant, meaning it can help fight oxidative stress. This is noteworthy because oxidative stress can lead to inflammation, sagging, and faster skin aging. However, lemon juice may help stave off these effects because it contains vitamin C.
Cautions about using lemon on the skin.
Despite the potential skin benefits of lemon, you'll want to avoid drenching your face with it.
Why? Well, applying straight lemon juice can do more than good, especially before going out in the sun. The practice can cause the following issues, according to the pros:
Lemon juice makes your skin more photosensitive, or sensitive to sunlight. This can cause a sunburn-like rash that's inflamed, irritating, and painful. "Lemons and other citrus fruits contain [compounds called] furocoumarins," explains Adam Mamelak, M.D., board-certified dermatologist. Furocoumarins have the ability to interact with DNA, including those in your skin. UV rays can "excite" these furocoumarins, causing skin cell damage and inflammation. Ouch.
Weakened skin barrier
One of the many goals of skin care is to strengthen the skin barrier. However, applying straight lemon juice will have the opposite effect. According to celebrity esthetician Taylor Worden, "The human skin has a pH of 4.5 to 5.5," which means it's slightly acidic. On the flipside, lemon juice is highly acidic, as it has a pH between 2 and 3. According to Mamelak, this high acidity can change the natural pH of your skin, causing a weakened skin barrier marked by irritation, dryness, and dehydration.
Photosensitivity that's brought on by lemon juice can result in a severe sunburn. Not only will this speed up skin aging, but it increases the risk of skin cancer1, too. The sheer acidity of lemon juice also doesn't help, as acidic ingredients, in general, can easily damage the skin.
Even if your stint with lemon juice doesn't result in burns, the ingredient can still cause irritation. This is a side effect of acids, like those in lemon juice, weakening and damaging the skin barrier. According to Worden, possible symptoms include peeling, dryness, stinging, and redness, depending on your skin tone.
Although lemon juice is often used to reduce hyperpigmentation, it can actually worsen the issue. That's because the sunburns caused by lemon juice "can cause blistering, [leading] to months of hyperpigmentation and potentially permanent scarring," says Mehr.
How to safely use lemon in skin care.
If you still want to use lemon on your skin, you'll be glad to know that it's possible to do it safely.
But first, make sure you're practicing safe sun habits like wearing hats and SPF. This is important for everyone, of course, but it's especially crucial if you're using lemon on the skin.
Here's how to safely reap the skin benefits of lemon:
Use a DIY honey mask with lemon.
Lemon juice is safer to use when it's diluted in another ingredient. Honey is an excellent choice, as it's wonderfully gentle and smoothing. If honey face masks aren't your thing, try making one with yogurt, mashed banana, or aloe vera gel.
Apply pre-formulated products.
Another option is to use pre-formulated products that contain lemon peel or juice. The key is to choose formulas by reputable brands, as they're more likely to use lemon (and every ingredient, really) at safe concentrations. You can also try using products that contain actives found in lemon juice, like vitamin C serums or glycolic acid cleansers—which tend to be much more tolerable on the skin.
Drink lemon water.
As Mehr notes, "What we consume has a direct effect on our skin." Thus, drinking lemon juice will boost your intake of vitamin C, ultimately helping your skin from the inside out. But remember, lemon juice is acidic, so you'll want to dilute it in water or tea. Alternatively, you can use it on pasta and salad for a delicious dose of vitamin C.
Lemon juice can help exfoliate dead skin cells and reduce excess sebum. However, straight lemon should never be applied to the skin, as it can cause irritation, sunburns, and skin damage. The safest option is to dilute in another ingredient, like honey, or drink it in beverages.
Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle journalist based in Beacon, New York. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition from Texas Woman's University and Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from SUNY Oneonta. Kirsten specializes in nutrition, fitness, food, and DIY; her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including eHow, SparkPeople, and international editions of Cosmopolitan. She also creates recipes for food product packaging.