A Little Known Danger

It’s the first truly bright sunshiney day in a while, and you’re staffed at the patio bar for this shift. Since you work at a taco joint, you’re ready for another long day of making margaritas and a long day of squeezing fresh lime juice.  The shift goes well – it’s busy, the tips are good and you’re out of there before closing. You decide to skip your after-shift drink and crash early.

Seems like a pretty good day at work, right?


The next morning, your hands appear red, bruised and covered in blisters. What the heck happened?

Beware the “Margarita Burn”, aka Phytophotodermatitis

As if there weren’t enough occupational hazards to bartending, here’s another to add to your list: Prolonged exposure to citrus juice and sunlight can cause a potentially serious chemical burn called Phytophotodermatitis.

In the industry, I’ve heard it called the “margarita burn” and even “lime disease” (which is confusing, as it’s not the same thing as Lyme disease.) In short, some of the chemicals common in citrus fruit can make your skin much more sensitive to ultraviolet light.

So if you spend your day squeezing limes in the sunshine, you’re definitely at risk. Symptoms range from relatively minor – like dark spots on the skin (which may or may not go away) to severe blistering that require medical treatment. (Warning: images are pretty awful.) For the most part, it feels like a sunburn – but instead of covering a broad area, the burns will follow distinct patterns limited to where the lime juice has touched.

Avoiding the Burn:

As with most injuries, the best treatment is avoiding it altogether. The good news is that since the burn is caused by physical contact with citrus juice, it’s relatively easy to prevent it.

Here are some tips for keeping yourself and your staff safe:

Prep your Lime Juice Indoors and Wash your Hands

If you don’t need to squeeze your lime juice a-la-minute, it’s worth considering batching it before service. Prepping indoors in advance will limit your exposure to sunlight while working with the limes and will also help speed up service later on. When you’ve finished with your batch, be absolutely sure to wash your hands and anything else that could have been exposed to the juice. Even a splash of the juice on your forearm can cause very uncomfortable burns.

Cover your Work Area

Consider adding an umbrella or moving the patio bar under an awning to shield some of the sunlight. This isn’t a perfect solution as UV light can bounce off water and pavement, but it will absolutely reduce your exposure dramatically and could make the difference between burns and no burns.

Wash your Hands Frequently

It seems obvious, but washing off the lime juice will definitely help a lot. If you can reduce the amount of the time where your skin is touching lime juice and exposed to sunlight, that will help a lot. Thankfully a simple soap and water wash is enough to wash away the harmful chemicals. 

Beware of relying too heavily on this – if you really are juicing limes all day, then washing your hands frequently may not be enough to prevent burns.

Wear Gloves

As much as I hate suggesting this, if all else fails, you may want to consider wearing gloves while touching citrus in the sun. They are uncomfortable and awkward, yes. But if it means your skin is protected and you can avoid burns, it might just be worth it.

If you have concerns about your work environment and exposure to sunlight and citrus juice, talk to your manager.Chances are fairly good that they have never heard of this risk, and if made aware, will happily work with you to help avoid the danger. The last thing they want is a worker’s comp claim or – worse yet – having you call out sick for days or weeks while you nurse your hands back to health!

Julia Tunstall

Julia Tunstall is the co-founder of A Bar Above and Chief Cocktail Taster. She's in charge of keeping things running smoothly around here, but you'll also find her stopping by on the Mixology Talk Podcast or hanging around the Craft Cocktail Club.