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Lavender and skin safety

Reviewed by Marta January 17, 2010 22 Comments
One of my best vacation memories is of ending a really long drive across France by checking late at night into a hotel in a small village. We slept fitfully becoming increasingly aware of an extraordinarily heady and intense smell of lavender. With the arrival of dawn we were able to discover that we were next to the village's lavender processing factory.

I love lavender. But perhaps it doesn't love me. In 2008, I read en passent somewhere that lavender oil in cosmetics may kill skin cells. Then I found a study - by strange coincidence conducted at my alma mater, University of Westminster in London - that makes the cell killer case pretty convincingly. Dr I C Locke found that in concentrations of 0.25%, lavender oil can be cytotoxic to human skin cells. He thinks that linanool, a component of lavender oil and an ingredient that crops all the time in cosmetics and shampoos, is the culprit along with linalyl acetate.

I did this research in 2008 and oddly, at the time, this seemed to be the only study of its kind. I couldn't find another that either corroborated or disproved it. There was, however, additional evidence that lavender can irritate the skin and cause allergic reactions. And at least two studies linked lavender (and tea tree oil) to the development of breasts in young boys and  premature breast development in young girls. Discontinuation of shampoos and lotions with these oils results in a rapid reversal (source).

18 months later in January 2010, I felt that I hadn't really got to the bottom of whether I should love lavender or relegate it to those sachets that freshen linen closets.

PubMed (the US Library of Medicine) has a long entry on lavender and confirms that it can be a skin irritant. However, it says nothing about the Westminster study. In fact, it cites "small Phase I human trials" of the lavender constituent perillyl alcohol (POH) as a treatment for cancer, although says efficacy has not been demonstrated.

As far as I can tell Dr Locke has not repeated his 2004 study on lavender oil. He has, however, performed tests on cloves and concluded that they are cytotoxic as well. Eventually, I found a 2007 study on a different plant's essential oil that was also composed of linalool and which also proved to be cytotoxic. A similar study from 2004 (testing another non-lavender linalool source) came to the same conclusion.

Actually, there are numerous studies that show linalool to be cytotoxic. This can be a good thing if you want to get rid of cancerous cells, but you wouldn't want it zapping the cells that you are spending a fortune on trying to preserve.

The important conclusion that I have come to is that lavender oil is probably best avoided in direct contact with the skin given that it is mostly comprised of linalool and linalyl acetate. Many cosmetics simply list linalool, without giving its source. However, it seems that linalool, wherever it comes from, is cytotoxic. Of course, we don't know what quantities are used, but the Westminster study suggests you don't need a lot.
  • July 28, 2014

    by Darrell Owens

    Hi Marianne,
    I would push back to both Derms you visited for better solutions and information.

    What you've described sounds so uncomfortable and while you may have had an allergic reaction to the lavender, it might also be worth investigating what the lavender oil source was from the company whose lavender oil you used. Depending on the type of lavender and how the oil was produced -- there might be some clues there which would help your doctors identify if it was a chemical solvent in the lavender oil or the actual lavender.

    I don't know if that advice will help but I hope it does.

    For some added comfort, you might try switching from creams or lotions to treat the area, to just a simple oil or coconut butter. In situations such as burns or irritations as a result of an oil or a solvent, products containing water might actually further irritate the skin...whereas just a simple oil may help reduce pain or discomfort and speed healing.

    Best of luck in a speedy recovery and that you find some hard answers!

  • July 28, 2014

    by Marianne

    Over a month and a half ago I was adding a few drops of pure lavender oil to my bath water, which I also added Epsom salt, to 'distress' in the evening as part of a detox program. In the span of 10-days, I believe I took 4-5 of these baths. I know have rashes on both legs...inner thighs, legs...that sometimes itch. Although I don't scratch too much, the skin seems to be so thin that I know how pockets of scabs mostly on the bottom part of my legs. My arms don't seem to have fared as bad and I've been putting on lots of skin cream (mostly without any chemicals, additives, etc.). When the rashes first started appearing I went to a dermatologist, who diagnosed me with folliculitis and prescribed topical cortisone--didn't help. The next dermatologist prescribed topical cortisone and prednisone--neither of which had any effect on my skin condition. Derm #2, suggested that if the prednisone did not alleviate the condition that I should have a biopsy performed. I'm thinking that the lavender oil damaged my skin but I can't seem to find any substantial info on the internet. I'm not sure what to do next...the rashes look like prickly heat but I've never had this in my live before. I have to sleep with a blanket between my legs or with cotton loose bottoms on so that my legs don't touch each other. Any suggestions????

  • July 21, 2014

    by Darrell Owens

    Hi Rich,
    For the longest time I was with you and made very sparing use of, or entirely avoided lavender. What I've found though, like many ingredients used in skin care, is that there is a tremendous amount of mis-information that gets regurgitated over and over and becomes fact to some people.

    My change of heart is that lavender CAN be safe and can be an asset in skin care products when uses at appropriate levels and when care is given to selection of the most suitable variety of lavender. There are many varieties of lavender oils and absolutes; each with differing chemical properties (and how they are produced) that result in some VERY safe options as well as ones to avoid or use with greater care.

    There is an industry leader in essential oils and aromatherapy named Robert Tisserand who has debunked some of the mis-information that has lead many of us to avoid lavender like the plague. I am including a link to one of his articles here where he actually talks about Paula's take on the oil.

    Everyone should make their own choice about lavender and keeping informed and clearing through mis-information can help. I know that in our own product line, we intend on making more use of lavender in the future but will do so in a way that lets our customers decide if they want lavender or not in their products.

    I hope my take on this topic and how my own views have changed about lavender safety, helps!

    Darrell from Your Best Face Skincare

  • July 20, 2014

    by rich

    According to Paula Begoun (the cosmetics cop), lavender is most definitely a skin irritant, with linalool being the culprit. She states that not only lavender, but lemon, lime, peppermint, rosemary and many products used in natural skin care are irritants and cause allergic reaction. I avoid lavender like the plague!

  • July 5, 2014

    by Tracy

    Sorry Sasha, but you are wrong! Phenoxyethanol is NOT Lavender in the least. It is a preservative.

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