Lavender Essential Oil: Skin Care Friend – or Foe?

Rich lavender field with a lone tree

Recently, I have been receiving numerous e-mails requesting reviews of lavender essential oil.  Like any other skin care product, consumers often tend to be lead astray by the fact that essential oils are “natural.” As I have noted before, natural products – not just chemical-based or synthetic products – are also capable of causing skin irritation and allergic reactions, and can even exhibit cytotoxicity in some cases.

Reported Benefits

Lavender oil has been used since Greco-Roman times for its relaxing properties.

Lavender oil has been used since Greco-Roman times for its relaxing properties.

With that said, lavender essential oil is one of the most commonly used essential oils.  First used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, lavender oil is generally believed to be an antibacterial, anti-fungal, carminative (smooth muscle-relaxing), sedative, anti-depressive, and effective for burns and insect bites, according to a 2002 review in Phytotherapy Research. In addition, many enjoy lavender’s aromatic properties, finding it to be calming and soothing.

In the skin, lavender has been shown to exhibit some antioxidant activity, effectively diminishing UV-induced reactive oxidative species generation (ROS) in the skin of rats.  Interestingly enough, the study (published in the journal Photochemistry and Photobiology) demonstrated that lavender oils from England and France exhibited greater antioxidant activity than did lavender oils from Japan, which goes back to how important it is to recognize the specific type and concentration of the lavender oil at hand. Other reported benefits of lavender oil include a reduction in symptoms of eczema and moderate psoriasis, though the evidence of this is somewhat limited. Similarly, while lavender oil has long enjoyed the reputation of promoting wound healing and scarring, there is little scientific backing for this as well, as pointed out in Phytotherapy Research.

Potential Detriments – It’s Not Pretty

Unfortunately, what lavender oil does have scientific backing for is a history of inducing skin irritation and allergic reactions, like the one featured in this case study in Contact Dermatitis. To lavender’s defense, many beneficial ingredients in skin care - from AHAs to zinc oxide - have been shown to induce such reactions in certain patients, so this alone does not mean that lavender oil is necessarily worse than many other skin care ingredients.

A more recent alarming study regarding lavender was featured in Cell Proliferation in 2004, which demonstrated that lavender oil consisting of 51% linalyl acetate and 35% linalool was cytotoxic in vitro (i.e., in culture), most likely through damage of the cellular membrane. The authors of the study attributed the damaging cellular activity to linalool. However, this effect has not been demonstrated by other studies as of yet, nor has it been demonstrated in cells in vivo (at least to the best that I could research!), and therefore more research needs to be done.

Another potential – and very alarming – effect of lavender oil is potential breast development (gynecomastia) in pre-pubertal boys. Published in the highly reputable New England Journal of Medicine in 2007, breast development was found to occur in three different patients, all pre-pubertal young men, only when they used a combination of lavender and tea tree oils. Indeed, when use of the lavender-and-tea-tree oil was stopped, the boys’ gynecomastia stopped. It is believed by the studies’ authors that both lavender and tea tree oil have hormonal (androgenic and estrogenic) activity that influences in vivo cellular activity.

[Related: Is Lavender Oil Really Estrogenic?]

Lavender can increase photosensitivity, so be sure to apply sunscreen daily.

Lavender can increase photosensitivity, so be sure to apply sunscreen daily.

Lastly, lavender oil increases photosensitivity. As such, although it is already crucial to wear a broad-spectrum SPF of at least 15 every day (or higher if your dermatologist recommends), it is even more essential to do so when using products that contain lavender oil in the morning.

Conclusions and Comments

Due to very effective marketing, most consumers seem to believe that “all-natural” or “organic” ingredients are necessarily better for your skin, which is definitely not always the case.  Take, for instance, the lavender oil at hand.  If more consumers were aware that having a pre-pubertal boy use lavender-and-tea-tree oils could potentially trigger his breast development, would we still be reaching for the lavender bubble bath over, say, Mr. Bubble? (I personally don’t use Mr. Bubble anymore because it contains irritating sodium lauryl sulfate).

[Related: Spotlight On: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate]

Don’t get me wrong  – there are definitely some great natural-based products out there, just like there are some great traditional ones, too. I think that our best bet in this world is not to get too hyped up on one trend (all-natural! only organic!) or on one alarming study. The best tool of all is education. Know that a natural ingredient can be as harmful or irritating as a synthetic one, and be reserved before making rash decisions about ingredients. Ask yourself some crucial questions:

  • Has this ingredient been demonstrated to have this effect in multiple studies?
  • Is this research in a highly-reputable, peer-reviewed scientific/medical journal?
  • Are the ingredients in the study being used in plausible concentrations?  (for more on how to evaluate a skin care study, click here for an earlier blog post).

And always remember, check back on this site!  I have a lot to learn too, but I will certainly get my best information to you. Let me know your thoughts in comments below!

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21 thoughts on “Lavender Essential Oil: Skin Care Friend – or Foe?

  1. Liz says:

    “Natural products – not just chemical-based or synthetic products – are also capable of causing skin irritation, allergic reaction, and even in exhibiting cytotoxicity in some cases.” YES! Poison ivy is natural, and I don’t want that in my skin cream.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Very informative and useful article, thanks!

    But I want to point on a thing I find all the time in some beauty blogs: they show that the only reliable tool are papers ALREADY published in scientific journals, and I find this a very simplistic point of view.

    Not all the ACTIVE INGREDIENTS are suject to scientifical research, and neither all the results and data are published. Also, most of the scientific projects are started with a purpose in mind: they try to demostrate their working hypothesis, leaving a lot of OPEN WAYS and questions in the middle.
    These kind of research are many times spare steps which are not integrated in a wider conceptual framework.

    Also this is not like cancer research, many possible ways are not investigated because they are not funded or are not of political/economical/cultural interest at some point.
    Most of the cosmetic effects are difficult to measure in a SCIENTIFIC way. Much more to draw a conclusion from separate and SHORT TERM experiments performed with different methodologies.

    Only these comments to point at this USE spreading in the web and being abused undiscriminately by people lacking of scientific background and vision.

    Thank you in advance for your attention.

    Becca

  3. Eric says:

    An incomplete condemnation of Lavender. What the study regarding skin irritation also mentioned was that it was oxidized constituents of Lavender essential oil, ie. Lavender that was not fresh, stored correctly, or not processed properly to avoid oxidation — that was the primary skin sensitizer. You’ve managed to find a very limited number of studies that show potential issues with with this potentially very healing essential oil. A little research through the abstracts on Pub Med will show the scales titled very strongly in favor of the medicinal value of Lavender.

  4. Sylvie says:

    I randomly stumbled upon this blog so I thought I would comment on Lavender Oil. I once thought that my little jar of lavender oil was tea tree oil and dabbled it onto my pimples. My face burned so badly, even after i washed my face! So up until this blog post, I’ve been confused as to the great healing properties of this essential oil. I think I did some real damage to my skin that day..

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  7. Rik Jansen says:

    Even natural product are made out of chemicals. Question everything, assume nothing! And do your research.

    Does it work to get bigger boobs in women? It would be nice to have a cheap alternative to a breast enlargement. And whatever you do, never put undiluted essential oil on your skin. It might burn!

  8. beth h says:

    I love the Made from Earth Lavender “Calm” lotion. The lavender is real and the scent is nice. Many so-called “lavender” lotions have no actual lavender in them! Read your labels. This one is good and it really does get rid of dryness, & you don’t have to keep reapllying it all day.

    Once is enough for the day, and you want the scent to keep…as its a natural product.

    http://www.madefromearth.com

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  13. maitri says:

    Essential oils should not be used ‘neat’ ie, directly on the skin, but sh ould be diluted in a high quality carrier oil. this is usually the cause of reactions such as you mentioned.
    also, regarding the adolescent boy breast thing-there is NO way to isolate other contributing factors. I’d love to know how much tea tree or lavender these kids were using? it wasn’t like they were given it daily like an experiment, right?
    so yea, i’d need to know MUCH more before i’d attribute that to lavender oil.
    We can talk about the proliferation of soy, mostly genetically modified soy at that-use in foods and soy’s contribution to excess estrogen and xenoestrogens are rampant today mainly sourced t hrough plastics!!!!
    While your point that not everything ‘natural’ means ‘good for you’, is valid, I wonder why so many seem to need to condem holistic medicine as it scarcely becomes accepted in mainstream.
    Often, it is the USE of a particular product, incorrect use really, that causes said reactions. Americans tend to think ‘more is better’ and use SO much of anything they think is good for them-this is not a holistic approach.
    So yes, natural doesn’t mean good, but also using natural the same way you use your synthetic chemical laden products, also is not truly holistic.
    This is a big piece yet to be understood by most.

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