Lavender soap. Lavender perfume. Lavender honey. Lavender potpourri. Lavender lotions and body scrub. Lavender lamb chops. Lavender laundry softener. Lavender candles. Lavender bubble bath. Lavender-infused sugar and candies.
There’s no doubt about it – people really love lavender.
What is it about lavender that makes us love it so much?
It could be that the lovely, fragrant aroma is calming.
It could be that the purple stalks are beautiful and almost majestic.
It could be that the plant reminds us of a mother, a grandmother, a favorite aunt.
Or if you’re less romantic and more pragmatic, you could already know how many health and wellness benefits this common-yet-beautiful plant can provide.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that leading essential oil companies report that lavender oil is their best-selling variety.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s put into an aromatherapy diffuser, mixed with a carrier oil and massaged into the skin, or used in a lavender-infused health and beauty or skin care product. Lavender provides a sense of well-being and happiness – and it simply smells wonderful.
Let’s take a deeper look at this common plant with uncommon properties.
How Did Lavender Become So Popular?
It may appear that half the lawns and flower gardens in your neighborhood feature lavender plants.
That could be true, but the plant doesn’t naturally in most places. It took a long time for lavender to make its way to the West.
Lavender (known botanically as lavandula) is really a perennial herb. That might seem strange at first, but if you look at the appearance of the plant before it flowers, you might see similarities with another common herb, rosemary. In fact, lavender is a member of the mint (Lamiacaea) family, related to most of the kitchen herbs we use regularly, as well as other plants like peppermint.
The lavender plant is native to the Mediterranean and Middle East, as well as India, and it has a long and distinguished history of use in those areas; the Romans scented bathhouses with it, and the Egyptians used it in the process of mummification. The ancient Greeks named it after the Syrian city of Naarda, calling it “nard” (or “spikenard”), and it’s referenced several times in the Bible. Nard was even said to be one of the herbs used to prepare the Holy Essence.
The actual word “lavender” is believed to have been derived either from the Latin word “livere” (meaning “blueish,” as a reference to the color of lavender flowers), or from the Latin and French words for “to wash,” lavandre and lavare. The latter apparently refer to the widespread Roman practice of scenting baths, bedsheets and clothing with lavender, and its infusion into soaps.
In any event, the plant became a favorite wherever it was taken. In Medieval Europe, clothes were washed in lavender (and sometimes hung to dry on lavender plants) by washwomen known as “lavenders.” Later, glove makers scented their gloves with lavender (and as legend has it, escaped cholera as a result). Queen Elizabeth I insisted that lavender flowers be spread throughout the royal residence and that lavender jam be served at her table, and the Victorians hung it in gardens throughout the British Empire.
The Shakers brought lavender to America and were the first to grow the plant commercially, but lavender didn’t remain in the Northeast. The plant rapidly spread throughout the country, just as it did in most other developed nations. Lavender was almost as ubiquitous in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries as it is today, favored for its appearance, scent and soothing properties.
When we think of lavender, we usually think of the plant with stalks of beautiful purple flowers. That variety is known as English lavender (Lavender angustifolia), and it’s the most common. Other popular types are the light-purple French lavender, the deep purple Spanish lavender, and the hybrid lavendin with dark violet and white flowers. Each has different colors and scents and different blooming periods; devoted gardeners often plant several varieties of lavender in order to have continually-blooming plants throughout the growing season.
Where Lavender Essential Oil Comes From
The lavender oil that’s infused into the products you buy, and sold in the form of lavender essential oil, is steam distilled from the flowers and stems of the English lavender plant. You can create DIY lavender oil from the plants in your garden as well, by simmering flowers in olive oil and vitamin E oil and then straining the mix. It will have the lovely scent of lavender, but won’t be as pure or potent.
Lavender essential oil contains several key chemical compounds responsible not only for its telltale aroma and color, but more importantly, for the medicinal benefits it can provide.
The two most important are linalyl acetate (about 50% of the oil’s content) and linalool (about 35%).Others that contribute to lavender oil’s health and wellness benefits include eucalyptol (best-known for its presence in eucalyptus). Linalool has been found to be primarily responsible for lavender’s aroma.
Lavender oil is an important part of everyday life for many of those who use it. Its biggest contribution, though, may be that it was integral to the development of modern aromatherapy. French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé was in the perfume business in the early 20th century, when lavender oil was used solely for its beautiful scent.
One day, Gattefossé’s family’s perfume factory exploded, and he suffered serious burns. He decided to experiment with lavender essential oil as a healing agent – and was stunned at how well lavender oil helped him heal. That led Gattafossé to continue research into essential oils (EOs); in 1937 he wrote a seminal book on the subject, and coined the phrase “aromatherapie.” That essentially marked the birth of the modern aromatherapy we know today.
Some people now use aromatherapy primarily for the ambience it contributes to a room or home. Its medicinal benefits, however, are the real reason for placing lavender essential oil – or any other oil – into a diffuser. Those benefits are many, and impressive.
Medicinal Benefits of Lavender Essential Oil
You probably don’t need to hear about any medical research to know that the scent of lavender is calming and relaxing.
That’s OK. We have the evidence here anyway, along with the details of other medical and health benefits that lavender essential oil can apparently provide.
Relieves Anxiety and Stress
One of the most comprehensive research surveys looking at clinical trials of lavender oil credits the oil’s interactions with the nervous system for its ability to induce relaxation, as well as provide many other medicinal benefits. More specifically, randomized controlled trials have found that lavender aromatherapy or inhalation significantly reduced participants’ anxiety levels, as well as their stress levels.
Antioxidant, Antibacterial and Antifungal Properties
Research has demonstrated that lavender essential oil appears to have significant antioxidant properties, important for the protection of the body from the damage done by free radicals. Antioxidants can help prevent or slow the progression of serious illnesses like heart disease and some cancers.
And a comparison of four essential oils (lavender, tea tree, bergamot and peppermint essential oils) to determine their antibacterial potential found that lavender and bergamot were the EOs best able to inhibit the growth of bacteria. It’s also apparently a good weapon against fungus as well, proving to be extremely effective at killing the Candida albicans fungus.
Essential oils are often used as a complementary treatment for inflammatory diseases like asthma and arthritis. Lavender essential oil has been shown in research studies to have strong anti-inflammatory properties; clinical aromatherapy was apparently effective in treating asthma, and aromatherapy massage seemed to benefit patients with arthritis.
Lavender’s anti-inflammatory ability is credited with being able to relieve some of the pain suffered by those with those conditions. The linalool and linalyl acetate in lavender oil also appear to help ease some other types of pain, like post-surgical pain, as well.
Other Potential Benefits of Lavender Essential Oil
- Research shows that lavender oil appears to speed wound healing when compared to a number of alternative treatments. The oil’s antioxidant properties appear to be an important factor.
- Similarly, lavender essential oil can be used to treat a number of dermatological conditions like eczema, acne and skin irritations, thanks to lavender’s anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial power.
- It’s unlikely that the use of lavender essential oil can actually cause hair growth all by itself. But research has shown that the EO can help treat hair loss caused by alopecia, and contribute to the growth of new hair.
- A Chinese study indicates that lavender oil aromatherapy may have promise for the treatment of the most common symptom of menopause, hot flashes.
- And a small, preliminary study done in Iran indicates there’s a possibility that the essential oil may be able to help lower heart rate and blood pressure.
Finally, while this may not be a “health” benefit, lavender oil’s ability to act as an insecticide can certainly prevent painful and possibly dangerous bug bites.
Using Lavender Essential Oil
The two most common ways of administering lavender essential oil are topically and through aromatherapy.
A few drops of lavender oil can be added to bath water, blended into skin care products and cosmetics, used for massage or applied to areas of the skin that are sore, inflamed, wounded or infected. It can also be mixed with water and a small amount of rubbing alcohol, and applied to the skin with a spray bottle.
For topical applications, however, it’s important to understand that most essential oils – including lavender – are strong and can cause side effects like skin irritation or even burns. Lavender oil should never be applied undiluted; dilution with a carrier oil like coconut oil, sweet almond oil or jojoba oil is essential before the essential oil is applied directly to skin with the fingers or a cotton pad, or used for therapeutic massage.
The easiest method is to use an essential oil diffuser, or as a second choice, to add several drops of lavender essential oil to a humidifier. The best hack, which also works well for aromatherapy during travel or at work, is to put a few drops of the oil into a handkerchief or cloth and (holding the cloth a few inches away) inhaling the aroma directly.
Diffusers are a great way to try different essential oil blends, either to vary the scent or to add more medical benefits to the mix. Chamomile, peppermint, sandalwood, patchouli, citrus and cedarwood are good choices for a lavender-based oil blend.
Other Methods of Application
Some people find that taking lavender oil internally can be almost as calming as inhaling its aroma. One commercial lavender oil preparation, Silexan capsules, has undergone clinical tests and been found to be safe and effective against anxiety.
Many medical professionals recommend against taking any essential oil internally, so check with your doctor or an aromatherapist first. If you get the green light from them, lavender oil is considered GRAS (generally recognized as safe) when taken in very small amounts, just like peppermint or vanilla oil. However, it’s best diluted with ethanol alcohol (vodka is a great choice) before it’s consumed, unless you’re mixing it into a recipe.
To use lavender essential oil as a cleaner or insect spray, add about ten drops to a spray bottle of water. Adding a few drops of lemon essential oil may make your home smell even better; adding tea tree oil instead will boost the mixture’s cleaning power.
Buying Lavender Essential Oil
As with just about any product, quality matters – and since essential oils aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the burden rests with the buyer. Always make sure you’re purchasing 100% pure lavender essential oil from a high-quality manufacturer, and store your oil in dark glass bottles, away from heat and light sources.
When storing lavender oil, be sure it’s out of the reach of children. In addition to the issues that consumption of undiluted oil or its application to the skin can cause, lavender essential oil may cause medical problems for younger males and those taking sedative medications.
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