Lavender’s virtues have been recorded by various peoples for at least three millennia. The ancient Greeks, who called lavender nardus after the Syrian city of Naarda, used liberal quantities of the plant in their purifying baths. (Indeed, lavender’s generic name is believed to have stemmed from the Latin root lavare, which means “to wash.”) Lavender was employed in Egyptian mummification rituals and was prized by the Phoenicians and Arabians for its perfume. As one of the herbs used to prepare the holy essence in biblical temples, lavender figures prominently in the Song of Solomon: “nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all the trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, along with all the finest spices…”
The medicinal properties attributed to lavender are so diverse as to tempt the urban herbalist to plant only a few clumps of Lavandula to meet any possible contingency. As an aromatherapeutic agent, lavender is reputed to relieve stress, abort migraines, allay anxiety, reduce agitation in demented persons, and cure insomnia. Lavender flower tea is used for treating insomnia, restlessness, and stomach irritation. When applied topically, lavender has been used to eradicate bacteria and fungi, re-grow lost hair, heal rashes, clear away acne, and assuage burns. (One well-worn tale relates the early twentieth-century travails of René-Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist who plunged his burned hand into a vat of lavender oil following a laboratory accident. The remarkable pain relief and rapid healing that resulted from this seemingly rash act led the scientist to further inquiry, which eventually launched the modern discipline of aromatherapy.)
Although most herbalists will attest to the safety of lavender oil—many say it’s the only essential oil you should apply full-strength to your skin—lavender oil can cause irritation, contact dermatitis, and photosensitivity when used at any concentration by allergic or sensitive individuals, and the likelihood for such problems increases even in non-sensitive people when the oil isn’t diluted. The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends adding 2 to 4 drops of lavender essential oil to a couple cups of boiling water for inhalation therapy, and mixing 1 to 4 drops of lavender oil with a tablespoon of base oil (almond, olive, sunflower, jojoba, etc.) for topical use. However, you can place a few drops of lavender essential oil directly on an infuser, pillow, handkerchief, sachet, or even a shirt sleeve if you’d like to employ it as an aromatherapeutic agent. And lavender is available in a wide array of ready-made products, including soaps, bath gels, perfumes, lotions, wands, shampoos, mists, teas, tinctures, and extracts.
Many authorities advise against the internal use of lavender essential oil, reporting that it is potentially toxic at any dose. In contrast, The Complete German Commission E Monograph cites several “approved” uses for lavender oil, including those that entail internal doses of 1 to 4 drops (up to 80 mg) daily. Similarly, lavender’s safety during pregnancy and lactation is a matter of controversy: some sources cite concerns about lavender's propensity for triggering uterine contractions (particularly during the first trimester) while others claim lavender actually relaxes uterine muscles.
As with all herbs, a few commonsense precautions should be observed when using lavender. Obviously, if you’re allergic to lavender, you shouldn’t use any preparation that contains its flowers or oils. To avoid sensitization, don’t apply undiluted lavender oil to an open wound or broken skin. If you use other supplements or take prescription medications—particularly those that are sedating—use lavender with caution. Finally, if you’re pregnant, consult your obstetrician or midwife before adding lavender to your daily routine.
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Lavender
- Aromatherapy Workbook. Marcel Lavabre, 1990. Healing Arts Press
- Blumenthal, M (Ed.): The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. American Botanical Council. Austin, TX. 1998