Botanical Nomenclature: Lavandula angustifolia
Extraction Method: Distillation
Ah, lavender essential oil. In many ways, there would be no aromatherapy without lavender. Not only is it by far the most popular of all the essential oils; it’s also the first to be documented therapeutically. You see, back in the late 1920s, a French chemist named Rene Gattefosse coined the phrase “aromatherapy” after using lavender to heal a serious burn.
In a story that’s been told and re-told throughout the decades, Gattefosse burned his hand during a laboratory experiment. Nearly hysterical with pain, he plunged his wounded fist into the nearest open container of liquid—a vat of pure lavender oil. As the legend goes, Gattefosse was so impressed with the immediate pain relief (and the eventual complete healing of such a serious burn) that he devoted the rest of his life to the study of volatile botanical oils.
But lavender oil is more than just aromatherapy’s firstborn. It’s also immensely popular in the perfume, food and home fragrance industries. Today lavender flavors pastries, scents cleaning products and is the most popular scent in “natural” cosmetics and toiletries.
The genus Lavandula is made up of at least 30 species but it’s oil distilled from the leaves and flowers of Lavandula angustifolia that aromatherapists considered the one true lavender. This species was previously known as L. officinalis and it’s still sold under that label occasionally.
Characteristics of Lavender Oil
True lavender oils should come only from L. angustifolia but because lavender essential oil is often distilled from any of the other species—and is sometimes a blend of several species—lavender oil will vary somewhat in its scent. But all lavender should have a herbaceous and almost medicinal scent with balsamic undertones and the faintest hints of floral. Any lavender oil should be thin and nearly colorless.
Unfortunately, its popularity makes lavender one of the most adulterated oils in the world. Lavender can be adulterated with other species of lavender, related species and even chemical “duplicates”. To get true, pure lavender oil, buy only from a reputable dealer and purchase only those brands you know you can trust.
Lavender is best known for its alleged relaxing and calming actions. It’s widely used in de-stressing blends for this reason.
Lavender is also considered a “balanced” or “gender neutral” oil and appeals equally well to both men and women. Lavender people are considered well-adjusted people who are in tune with themselves and considered and patient with others.
Traditional Uses for Lavender Essential Oil
Lavender is sometimes called the “mother” of essential oils and has been used over the years for a variety of reasons. It’s a popular oil to have on hand during childbirth and was once used extensively for reproductive health issues.
Lavender’s antimicrobial properties also make it a popular oil for sickrooms. Some stories claim that towns that grew lavender commercially during outbreaks of the plague were spared the worst of the infections. True or not, lavender is widely considered in aromatherapy to be a first-line oil during cold and flu season.
Lavender is also highly prized for its alleged healing properties. It’s a popular oil to dab onto minor cuts, scrapes, bug bites and minor burns. There is some evidence that lavender was once used as a disinfectant when battlefield supplies of medicinal disinfectants ran out.
Author and aromatherapy expert Salvatore Battaglia assigns these therapeutic actions to lavender essential oil:
- Anticonvulsive & Antispasmodic
Serious Medical Studies on Lavender Oil
Given lavender’s incredible popularity in aromatherapy, it’s surprising to learn that only a few dozen studies on L. angustifolia have been published in medical journals.
One of the problems facing caregivers of dementia patients is agitation and, unfortunately, the risks and side effects of mainstream pharmaceuticals often outweigh the potential benefits. But a 2007 Chinese study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that lavender essential oil, diffused into the air, effectively calmed elderly dementia patients while presenting no documented side effects.
Lavender has long been prized for its believed antimicrobial actions. A 2005 Italian study is just one of several that found lavender oil effective against the common fungal infection Candida albicans.
Aromatherapy most often uses lavender for stress reduction and a number of studies have focused on the calming effects of the oil. A 2007 study on gerbils found that exposure to the scent of lavender essential oil reduced noticeable stress responses in laboratory animals during maze tests.
Most of the popular aromatherapy books rave about lavender’s safety and mildness. Unfortunately, this exuberance seems to be a bit premature. Contrary to widely held beliefs, allergies to lavender do occur—and just among professionals who work with the oils, as some aromatherapy authors have claimed.
There is also some evidence that the linalool content of lavender oil may be cytotoxic to human skin cells. In laboratory tests concentrations of 0.25% proved cytotoxic to all cell types tested in this experiment.
Battaglia, S. (2005). The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy
Lin, P., et al. (2007). Efficacy of aromatherapy (Lavandula angustifolia) as an intervention for agitated behaviours in Chinese older persons with dementia: a cross-over randomized trial.
Bradley, B., et al. (2007). Anxiolytic effects of Lavandula angustifolia odour on the Mongolian gerbil elevated plus maze.
D’Auria, F., et al. (2005). Antifungal activity of Lavandula angustifolia essential oil against Candida albicans yeast and mycelial form.
Prashar, A. (2004). Cytotoxicity of lavender oil and its major components to human skin cells.