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Lavender Essential Oil

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Lavender oil is an indispensable member of the essential oil toolbox.

What is the history of Lavender Essential Oil?

Lavender is a flower that has been revered by many different cultures across the span of many centuries.  The name lavender comes from the late Latin verb lavandarius, meaning “things to be washed”, from the word lavare, a verb meaning “to wash”.  The Old French word developed into the name lavandre.  Some sources believe the name is derived from the Latin word livere, meaning “blueish”.  [1]

  • Egypt: It was popular in Egyptian culture and was used as perfume, incense, and in the mummification process. [2, 3]
  • Greece: The Greeks called lavender “nardus” after the city of Naarda, and it was referred to as “nard”.  The Hebrew word for nard was “nerd” and it was mentioned in Biblical texts along with saffron, henna, calamus, cinnamon, myrrh, and aloes. The Greeks bathed in lavender, and Greek naturalist Dioscorides recorded the medicinal benefits in the first century A. D. [2]
  • Rome: The Romans also bathed in lavender.  Lavender was so valuable that flowers were sold for the equivalent of a month’s salary for a farm laborer, or the equivalent of fifty haircuts from the barber. The Romans also had a superstition that the dangerous viper known as the asp nested in lavender bushes, and so extra care was needed when approaching and harvesting lavender.  This, in turn, also increased its cost!  [2]
  • China: Lavender is included in a medicinal oil named the “White Flower Oil”.   [2]

In the middle ages, Lavender was used as an aphrodisiac.  Its more chaste benefits were based on its insecticidal properties and was used in the straw of castle floors as a deodorant and disinfectant.    By 1652, the English physician Culpeper felt it was a cure-all for many symptoms including loss of voice and fainting.  In 1710 it was recommended to treat snake bites, mad dog bites, and believed to cure hysterics.  [2]

In times of war, lavender disinfected wounds.  It was also used as a moth repellent for linens, a smelling salt, an embalming agent for corpses, and in varnishes and laquers.  Other uses of lavender oil included use in oil paints as a solvent before turpentine was used commonly, and spike lavender (L. latifolia) oil was preferred for this.  [2, 4]

Ancient types of Lavender

The ancient Greeks grew a type of lavender known as Lavendula stoechas.  The Romans grew Lavendula stoechas, Lavendula pedunculata, and Lavdendula denata, while the Egyptians grew Lavendula multifida.   [1]

What are the most common types of Lavender?

Lavender comes from the family Lamiaceae, better known as the mint family.  The family Lamiaceae also includes flowering plants and aromatic, culinary herbs such as mint, basil, sage, rosemary, savory, oregona, marjoram, hyssop, perilla, and thyme.  [2, 5]

Lavender has 45 species and over 450 varieties.  It cross pollinates with other strains easily and new strains are always being discovered.  [7]

In the middle ages, the European species known at the time were grouped into genera:  Stoechas (stoechas, denata, pendunculata) and Lavendula (latifolia, spica).  In 1753, five more species were recognized, and over the next few years by 1790 a total of seven species were classified.  In 1826, more species were classified, and the total rose to twelve species.  More species were added until the total species of Lavender grew to 18 in 1848, and now we recognize 39-45 species.  [1]

1. English Lavender

  • Lavendula angustfilia/Lavendula officinalis: also known as English Lavender, or Old English Lavender  [2]Produces short stemmed flowers that dry with a blue color [2]
  • Better for dried flower purposes, but its hybrids are still valuable for their essential oil yield  [2]
  • Grows at high altitudes above 400 meters [6]

English Lavender is the most commonly cultivated species.  The main source of oil is extracted from the flowers’ oil glands on the calyx, a structure in the flower that is purple-grey.  English  Lavender flowers from mid/late June to early July.

Within the English lavender are several varieties (or cultivars) that are selectively bred. Common cultivars are the white dwarf Nana Alba, and pink Jean Davis, Rosea, and Lodden Pink.  Dark flowered cultivars are Dwarf Blue, Twickle Purple, Hidcote, Loddon Blue, Royal Purple, Middachten, Nana Atropurperea, Munstead, Mitcham Cray, and Summerland Supreme.  Lavender-blue cultivars include Bowles Early, Backhouse Purple, Compacta, Graves, Folgate, Gray Lady, Irene Doyle, Gwendolyn Anley, and Maillette.  Blue flowered cultivars like Irene Doyle can flower twice and another recurrerent bloomer is the cultivar of dark lavender Susan Belsinger.

English lavender’s essential oil has sweet overtones and used in balms, perfumes, salves, cosmetics and topical applications.  English lavender is better for dried flower uses because its flowers stay on the stem when dry.  One of English lavender’s hybrids, Lavandin, is used for most essential oils.  [2]

  • English Lavender Hybrids
    • Lavandin (Lavendula x intermedia, also known as L. hybrida, sometimes referred to as “bastard lavender” or Dutch Lavender) is a hybrid between L. angustifolia and L. latifola. It is a sterile hybrid which needs to be vegetatively propagated. It blooms 3-4 weeks later than its parent flower, English Lavender, and has a higher concentration of essential oil.  It is grown commercially for its essential oil yield and can also be found in nursery production.  [10, 5, 2]
      • Grows at lower altitudes of 400-600 meters
      • Yields a large amount of essential oil and is cheaper to cultivate than other species [6]
      • Cultivars of Lavandin specific to essential oil production include Abrialli, Grosso, Super, Maime Epis, and Standard. Other cultivars are Dutch, Hidcote Giant, Grappenhall, Old English, Seal, Provence, and Silver Grey.  L. lanata is produced for potpourri because of the balsam-lavender fragrance it contains and blooms in midsummer.  L. heterophylla grows well in containers and has unusual grey-green leaves.  [2]
    • Spike Lavender (Lavendula latifolia)

 2. French Lavender

  • Lavendula dentata: also known as Fringed Lavender
  • Best suited for potpourri because of its rosemary scent
  • Dark purple flowers
  • Grows in Spain and warm climates [2]

3. Spanish Lavender

  • Lavendula stoechas: also known as topped lavender
  • Does not grow well in the U.S.
  • Considered a weed in Australia and Spain because it is so prevalent
  • Grows naturally in Spain, France, Portugal, Greece, and Italy [9]
    • Spanish Lavender Hybrids
      • Lavendula x allardii:  also known as Giant Lavender
        • Grows up to 5 ft high and 4 ft wide
        • Purple-violet flower
      • Sawyers: crossed between L. angustfolia and L. lanata
        • Large grey leaves
        • Lavender-blue to deep purple flowers
        • Suited for dried flowers and potpourri [2]

What is an essential oil?

The term “essential oil” is called essential because it signifies the most important part of the aromatic plant:  its essence. An essential oil is a secondary metabolism of plants, especially aromatic plants.  Secondary metabolites are a natural defense mechanism against pests and microbials and consist of either color, pollinator attractants, or scents.  These essential oils are also known as volatile oils.  [10]

How is Lavender Essential Oil Made?

Essential oils are mostly produced through steam distillation or mechanical expression.  Some plant extracts need a solvent such as ethanol, acetone, or hexane for extraction.

Essential oils produced through distillation are exposed to water condensate which separates through gravity and leaves a small amount of a volatile liquid behind—the essential oil.  Essential oils are extremely concentrated.

Though they are called oils, essential oils do not contain any lipids and do not qualify as true oils.  They consist of very complex volatile compounds with twenty to sixty constituents.  The constituents can be classified into two groups:  terpenes and aromatic compounds.  Usually, two or three major constituents are in very high concentrations, and the others are trace amounts.  The difference between whether terpenes or aromatic compounds are the higher concentration depends on the plant.  [10]

Lavender essential oil has two forms:  lavender flower oil and lavender spike oil (from L. latifolia).  [4]

Lavender essential oil is present in the flowers and flower stalks and the flowers are harvested when about half-bloomed.  Lavender is almost 80% water and it can take one to two weeks to dry.  To contain the optimal ester levels, lavender flowers are harvested in their second year and can be harvested up to their fifth year.  Some farmers report their lavender can be harvested up to thirty years.  For essential oils, the lavender is harvested mechanically, but cut flower production is still performed by hand.  [2]

Other methods for essential oil production are subcritical extraction liquid, solvent free microwave extraction, supercritical fluid extraction, hydrodiffusion, and hydrodistillation.  [11]

What is lavender essential oil made of?

All forms of lavender contain linalool, linalyl acetate, and 1,8-cineole.  In varying concentrations, depending on species, it also contains terpenes/monoterpnols, terpenes/monoterpenes, terpenes/terpene esters, terpenes/terpenoid oxides, sesquiterpenes, and ketones (specifically camphor). Pinene, cineol, limonene, borneol, geraniol, and some tannins are also present in lavender oil.  [4, 2]

Lavender oil contains linalyl acetate up to 40% and linalol up to 30%.  Linalyl acetate is an ester that gives lavender its pleasant and sweet aroma and is one of the esters responsible for the antimicrobial properties present in the plant. The other ester that gives Lavender its aroma is linalyl butyrate.  Ester concentrations can vary due to soil quality, species, method and timing of flower gathering, how quickly it goes from field to distillation, and the method used for distillation.  Steam distillation is generally regarded as better than water distillation.  [2]

Phytochemistry of the Different Species of Lavender

  • Rosmarinic acid is present in English Lavender, Lavandin, L. latifolia, and L. stoechas [2]

The high ester content in English lavender makes it a good choice for aromatherapy.  Spike lavender has a higher camphor and 1,8-cineole level which means that it is helpful for respiratory infections, muscular pain and insecticides, but must be used cautiously.  Spanish Lavender (L. stoechas) has a high camphor content and requires caution when handling.  It may possess abortifacient properties so it is not recommended during pregnancy.  It also contains the terpenoid ketone fenchone which is technically a ketone but classified as nontoxic, non-sensitizing, and non-irritating, unlike other ketones.  The Lavandin (Dutch Lavender, also known as L. intermedia) is considered an inferior essential oil that was once bred for the perfume trade.  As an intermediate composition between true lavender and Spike lavender, it still has many helpful therapeutic benefits.  [6, 8]

How to Use Lavender Essential Oil

Essential oils are very concentrated, and they need to be diluted in carrier oils for most uses to avoid skin irritation.  Always use a diluted essential oil blend unless otherwise instructed by your healthcare practitioner.  Using lavender essential oil in children has specific guidelines based on age. Use in children should be supervised by your healthcare practitioner.  Essential oils shouldn’t be taken internally unless under the guidance of healthcare practitioner.  Most of the benefits of essential oils will be through topical or aromatherapy methods.

For Aromatherapy (inhalation):

  • Add to a diffuser
  • Make a sachet of lavender flowers or place a few drops on a cloth and keep near pillow
  • Add a few drops of essential oil to water and use as a linen or pillow spray
  • Add a few drops to bath water
  • Add a few drops to a cotton ball and keep inside tissue box
  • Add to a cotton ball or gauze bad and keep on bedside table, or diffuse at night
  • Add a few drops to a cotton ball for inhalation [18]
  • Add a few drops to a diffuser necklace
  • Add a few drops to hot water in a glass or bowl to inhale steam for steam treatment
  • Add a few drops to a candle and it will diffuse the scent as it burns

For Massage:

  • Massage lavender essential oil blend on sore joints, temples, or on abdomen
  • Use a rollerball roll-on that you can apply quickly on the go
  • Use lavender essential oil blends in pressure point massage

For Cleaning:

  • Add to baking soda to sprinkle over carpets and vacuum to clean and deodorize carpets
  • Add to washing machine to infuse scent into laundry
  • Add lavender essential oil to white vinegar in a spray bottle and use as a surface cleaner spray

Safety and Side Effects of Lavender Essential Oil

Contact dermatitis is the most common side effect of lavender essential oil.  This is because the linalyl acetate found in lavender can be irritating in some cases.

There is some concern about lavender essential oil causing hormonal disruption in pre-pubescent boys who were using lavender products topically.  All symptoms resolved after discontinuing using products with lavender [18].  There is still much debate on this topic because it is unclear what other ingredients, doses, and formulations the boys were exposed to.  Until further conclusions are made, it is best to be cautious when using lavender with younger males.


  1. “Lavandula.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavandula#cite_note-Lis-6.
  2. McCoy, Joe-Ann, PhD. “Lavender: History, Taxonomy, and Production.” NC State Extension, 1999, newcropsorganics.ces.ncsu.edu/herb/lavender-history-taxonomy-and-production/.
  3. “Lavender.” nccih.nih.gov/health/lavender/ataglance.htm.
  4. “Lavender Oil.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavender_oil.
  5. “Lamiaceae.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamiaceae.
  6. Clarke, Sue. “Composition of Essential Oils and Other Materials.” Essential Chemistry for Aromatherapy (Second Edition), 2008, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780443104039000078.
  7. “Lavender Varities.” United States Lavender Growers Association, www.uslavender.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=73:lavender-varieties&catid=24:lavender-101&Itemid=138.
  8. “Lavender.” Examine.com, published Jan 12, 2015.  Last updated Jun 14, 2018. https://examine.com/supplements/lavender/.
  9. “Lavandula Stoechas.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavandula_stoechas.
  10. Yap, Polly Soo Xi et al. “Essential oils, a new horizon in combating bacterial antibiotic resistance.” The open microbiology journalvol. 8 6-14. 7 Feb. 2014, doi:10.2174/1874285801408010006. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3950955/.
  11. Aziz, Zarith Asyikin Abdul, et al. “Essential Oils: Extraction Techniques, Pharmaceutical And Therapeutic Potential – A Review.” Current Drug Metabolism, vol. 19, no. 13, July 2018, www.researchgate.net/publication/326598166_Essential_Oils_Extraction_Techniques_Pharmaceutical_And_Therapeutic_Potential_-_A_Review.
  12. Duan, X, et al. “Autonomic Nervous Function and Localization of Cerebral Activity during Lavender Aromatic Immersion.” Technol Health Care, vol. 15, no. 2, 2007, pp. 69–78., www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17361051.
  13. Sayorwan, W, et al. “The Effects of Lavender Oil Inhalation on Emotional States, Autonomic Nervous System, and Brain Electrical Activity.” J Med Assoc Thai, vol. 95, no. 4, 2012, pp. 598–606., www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22612017.
  14. Hancianu, M, et al. “Neuroprotective Effects of Inhaled Lavender Oil on Scopolamine-Induced Dementia via Anti-Oxidative Activities in Rats.” Phytomedicine, vol. 20, no. 5, 15 Mar. 2013, pp. 446–52., doi:10.1016/j.phymed.2012.12.005. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23351960.
  15. Cardia, Gabriel Fernando Esteves et al. “Effect of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)Essential Oil on Acute Inflammatory Response.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM vol. 2018 1413940. 18 Mar. 2018, doi:10.1155/2018/1413940. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5878871/.
  16. Tisserand, Robert. “Lavender Oil – Skin Savior or Skin Irritant?” roberttisserand.com/2011/08/lavender-oil-skin-savior-or-skin-irritant/.
  17. Xu, Pan et al. “The Protective Effect of Lavender Essential Oil and Its Main Component Linalool against the Cognitive Deficits Induced by D-Galactose and Aluminum Trichloride in Mice.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAMvol. 2017 (2017): 7426538. doi:10.1155/2017/7426538. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5424179/.
  18. “Lavender”. Foods, Herbs & Supplements. https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com/databases/food,-herbs-supplements/professional.aspx?productid=838#dosing


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