Growing global water demand has brought desalination technologies to the forefront for freshwater production from nontraditional water sources. Among these, forward osmosis (FO) is a promising two-step desalination process (draw dilution and regeneration), but it is often overlooked due to the energy requirements associated with draw regeneration. To address this limiting factor, we demonstrate FO desalination using thermally responsive ionic liquids (ILs) that are regenerated using a renewable energy input, that is, solar heat. To efficiently harness sunlight, a simple photonic heater converts incoming irradiation into infrared wavelengths that are directly absorbed by IL–water mixtures, thereby inducing phase separation to yield clean water. This approach is markedly different as it uses radiative heating, a noncontact mode of heat transfer that couples to chemical functional groups within the IL for rapid energy transfer without a heat exchanger or secondary fluid. Overall, a solar-thermal separation efficiency of 50% is achieved under unconcentrated sunlight, which can be increased to 69% with the thermal design. Successful desalination of produced water from oil wells in Southern California highlights the potential of solar-powered IL-FO for energy-efficient and low-cost desalination of complex brines for beneficial water reuse.