by Katharine Koeppen, RA
Periodically, you may see reference to "FCF" bergamot oil. The FCF stands for "furocoumarin free", which designates a rectified essential oil from which the furocoumarins have been removed.
Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) is a lovely essential oil produced via steam distillation or expression from the rind of a Mediterranean citrus fruit. The trees have a very narrow geographic distribution because they are highly prone to fungal infection, so you're unlikely to ever encounter any bergamot fruit (although it occasionally shows up in supermarkets near California citrus country). While the fruit is unknown in most parts of the world, the essential oil is one of the most popular in aromatherapy.
Bergamot essential oil is notorious for its phototoxicity. Topical application of expressed bergamot oil will cause adverse reaction when the skin is exposed to ultraviolet light. This includes bright sunlight, as well as tanning beds, ultraviolet x-ray treatments, etc. While phototoxicity is not a problem with steam distilled bergamot, those using the expressed oil topically should avoid exposure to direct sunlight for 6 or 7 hours after application. Some aromatherapists prefer to err on the side of caution and recommend waiting up to 12 hours before exposure.
Dermal reactions vary depending on percentage of dilution, length of exposure and individual sensitivity. These adverse reactions range from reddening and blistering of the skin to permanent loss of skin pigmentation. This isn't simply the stuff of urban aromatherapy legend: for several centuries, it has been well documented that Italian workers in the bergamot industry often suffer complete loss of skin pigmentation from fingertips to elbows due to handling of the fruit.
Pigmentation loss is caused by phytochemicals in the the essential oil known as coumarins. Bergamot essential oil contains roughly 3% to 4% coumarins, including bergapten, bergamottin, citropten, and others. Although comprising just a small part of the essential oil, coumarins pack a powerful punch. Along with linalool and linalyl acetate, they are responsible for bergamot's well known calming effect on the nervous system.
While I am steadfastly opposed to the use of rectified essential oils, this is one case where I've made an exception. Aromaceuticals is located in the Sunbelt, where many bodyworkers love bergamot for basic relaxational massage and stress management. Equally popular among estheticians, bergamot is employed in facials for treatment of nervous acne. Many practitioners are uncomfortable regarding potential client compliance with sun precautions, so I make a bergapten-free bergamot available. It has a different aroma and is somewhat less calming than the whole expressed essential oil, but it eliminates phototoxicity concerns. I recommend having both the rectified and whole versions on hand.