Of all the essential oils used in clinical aromatherapy, lavender is undoubtedly the most versatile, having a wide range of properties from analgesic to antiseptic. The name Lavender, derived from the Latin word lavare, meaning to wash, was the aromatic of choice by the Romans to scent their bathwater. Without doubt, if you had to choose a single essential oil to keep in your first aid kit, lavender would be the undisputed choice. More commonly known as a sleep aid, the most important property of lavender is its ability to restore unbalanced states, whether of mind or body, to a place in which healing can take place.
Lavender has a long history in the development of modern aromatherapy. In 1910, French chemist and scholar Maurice Gattefosse discovered the dramatic healing effect of lavender oil after burning his hand in a laboratory accident. His experience led him to research essential oils in greater depth and eventually to coin the term aromatherapy. Dr. Jean Valnet also used lavender oil to treat serious burns and war injuries when he was a French army surgeon. Lavender has become known in burn units in European hospitals for its effectiveness in the treatment of burns. Along with its antiseptic and analgesic properties, it eases the pain of the burn and also prevents infection. Lavender is also cytophylactic, helping burns heal faster and reduce the overall appearance of scarring.
Lavender is a hardy, fragrant shrub with narrow leaves and grey-blue flowers that can grow to a height of three feet. The aroma of lavender can be found throughout the entire plant but the essential oil can only be obtained from the flower. Originally grown in the mountains of Europe, lavender is now grown worldwide. However, the primary aromatherapy producers are France, Bulgaria, Croatia and Russia. There are quite a few varieties of lavender, some of which are considered more important in aromatherapy because of their specific properties. The most common are spike lavender (Lavandula spica), French lavender (Lavandula stoechas ) and true lavender or English lavender (Lavandula officinalis or Lavandula angustifolia).
In order to truly understand lavender, we need to look at its chemistry. There are two primary pieces of chemistry: linalyl acetate, an ester which is anti-inflammatory; and linalool, an alcohol that brings the antiseptic properties to lavender. When buying lavender for clinical use, we require true lavender 40/42, with the numbers representing the required minimum percentage of these two particular pieces of chemistry that provide the medicinal qualities. In comparison, Bulgarian lavender has a gentler aroma and has linalyl acetate and linalool in percentages of 38/40; therefore it is good but not quite as potent. The most important thing to remember is that you must always know the country of origin of any of your essential oils along with where it is grown, the climate, harvesting techniques, and the distillation temperature. For example, a dry, hot summer will create a higher percentage of esters than a damper one and Alpine lavender is always higher in esters than plants grown at lower altitudes. Alpine lavender also has a more camphorous smell but is more useful for treating respiratory conditions. The chemistry of this oil is also unique in a different way. It has the ability to not only have its own action enhanced by other oils, but it can also heighten the action of the oils it is mixed with. In the process of custom blending for a client, lavender should be considered in most blends for its ability to bring a blend of oils together in their action and aromatic odor.
Lavender has many properties and uses. It is an essential oil that should be in every spa, salon and home. As a sedative, lavender is very effective. It can be used as a sleep aid and can also be massaged into the throat to relieve a tickly cough. When massaged into the temples, lavender will help to relieve many forms of headache. For best results, you can combine it with peppermint and eucalyptus in cold pressed oil and massage gently into the temples and the back of the neck.
One of the best uses of lavender is in the relief of muscle and joint pain. Considered an analgesic, it is best used in a massage treatment or a bath and should be combined with other analgesic oils such as rosemary, black pepper, clove and peppermint. Muscle pain, menstrual pain and arthritic pain can all benefit from the application of the oil, reducing inflammation and calming the central nervous system. To help combat menstrual pain, apply the oil on a warm compress to the lower abdominal area or to the lower back. During labor, lavender will reduce pain and strengthen contractions, helping to speed up the labor process. It can be massaged into the lower back and can be used as a compress or massaged into the abdomen to speed the expulsion of the afterbirth.
As an antiseptic, lavender is also soothing and antiinflammatory, making it very useful for many skin conditions. Its delicate aroma lends itself to being blended in creams and lotions, usually in a dilution of one to two percent. Along with Roman and German chamomile, lavender is considered one of the safest oils for children. It is beneficial for treating childhood infections, cuts and scratches, et cetera.
In the spa, lavender is very valuable in the treatment of acne. As an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, it not only inhibits the bacteria causing the infection but also calms the redness associated with acne. It can be blended with ylang ylang to help reduce sebaceous flow. Lavender will also help many cases of eczema and blends well with chamomile and peppermint to calm the skin. When using lavender for its anti-inflammatory and soothing properties, make sure you use it in low dilutions of less than one percent.
During the summer, consider lavender for its insecticidal properties. Combined with oils such as lemon, citronella, eucalyptus and tea tree, it makes a great mosquito repellant as well as a lotion for the treatment of insect bites. I like to mix lavender in a light lotion and leave it by the back door so I can apply it as I go out into the garden. Consider lavender for sunburn and sunstroke, prepared in a light lotion, cold compress or cold gel.
Lavender has been used for centuries to protect clothes and linens from moths. Combined with oils such as myrrh, lemongrass and tea tree, lavender can be considered fungicidal and used for the treatment of athlete’s foot and other fungal infections.
Mind and Spirit
Lavender oil is useful to alleviate stress. Stress that becomes counterproductive on a physiological level involves either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system. Sympathetic hyperfunctioning is triggered more by physical stress, while parasympathetic hyperfunctioning is caused by emotional stress. Lavender oil will inhibit both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system functions. By selectively inhibiting either sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous excess, lavender can assist responses to unproductive stress of any kind.
Medical herbalist Peter Holmes suggests using lavender in acute crisis situations. He states that lavender can promote personal renewal in every way by washing away past habits and opening us up to new possibilities. It will also help by producing the inner acceptance of a painful situation by easing fear and creating the strength that allows us to move on. Lavender has been the focus of many clinical trials and is being used in hospital wards as a massage oil, being vaporized to help dispel anxiety, and as an alternative to using orthodox drugs to help patients sleep.
Aromatherapy practitioner Gabriel Mojay equates lavender with the astrological sign Virgo. He speaks of the characteristics of Virgo to include oversensitivity and inhibition, using lavender to calm the nervous anxiety that results in shyness and embarrassment.
Use lavender wisely; a small amount is calming but too much can be stimulating. Always remember that, as popular as it is, lavender is not everybody’s favorite aromatic oil. In the treatment room, providing well blended lavender mixed with other essential oils will benefit your clients with its amazing medicinal properties.
Trish Green is a homeopath, certified clinical and medically trained aromatherapist. She recently completed her education in aromatherapy for use in Oncology practice. She is the director of sales and marketing for Eve Taylor North America.