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Lavender and skin safety

January 17, 2010 Reviewed by Marta 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.

  • December 3, 2013

    by Sasha

    My skin gets really irritated, sore and causes rashes when I use it. I am talking just some skin-care products that I wouldn't even think of! I recently bought a concealer just to cover up a blemish here and there and dear lord has my skin broken out, dried out, gotten sore and looking very, very rash-y. It looks horrible and it didn't say 'lavender' on the back, it did however, use its chemical name 'Phenoxyethanol'.

    Watch out! It was Soap and Glorys' 'Kick Ass Concealer' my skin is looking horrible right now and i've tried my best to cover it up without caking my face, it's just awful getting caught out like that. Even if it has been soap or hair products, it's ALWAYS the same thing.

    I am also a Coeliac, whether that makes a difference or not, I don't know. I had read it somewhere and that was a point that obviously carries extreme weight for me.

    I've also been feeling weirdly dizzy, forgetful and a bit off for the past few days which has happened before (it's possibly just because of being sore etc but it's still something to look out for) though, I do have epilepsy and other things really effect me so I couldn't be sure at all.

  • December 21, 2012

    by Debbie

    About a year ago I had a bad reaction to a Clinique product. I also can't use anything with a chemical sunscreen. I started using Avalon Organics products with Lavender. Are these products bad? What a confusing world we live in, just when you think your on to something it changes!

  • December 21, 2012

    by Katie

    I recently found a moisturizer for sensitive skin that has "lavender water" in it. Is that just as bad? I mean what is lavender water anyways?

    Thanks :)

  • November 27, 2012

    by Joan

    Thank you for your reply Marta. Although there is only a trace of linalool in my night cream, I have also discovered that my shampoo, shower gel, body cream and make-up all contain linalool. In addition I occasionaly use a lavender room spray. Surely if all these products are used at the same time, the percentage of linalool would amount to a toxic level.

  • November 24, 2012

    by Marta

    Hi Joan, it is worth quoting the founder of Kahina, who responded to my <a href="" rel="nofollow">review</a> of her serum:
    "A note on the linalool - it not an actual ingredient used in formulating the serum. To sell products in Europe, any potential allergens discovered in products are required to be disclosed. The linalool was used in the processing of one of the ingredients in the formula. Although it is in trace amounts in the final result, we are still required to list it on the ingredient list to export to Europe and meet their strict requirements. Hope this helps to clear things up."

    So the linalool in your product (I believe you are in the UK) may be no more than trace. Personally, I have not given up all products with linalool. I'd prefer to avoid it if I can, but if I otherwise like a product I will continue to use it despite the linalool. I think that direct contact of the skin with pure lavender oil is probably best avoided.

  • November 24, 2012

    by Joan

    Dear Marta
    I read your article on linalool being cytotoxic with much interest. Have just checked the ingredients of my day and night moisturisers and discovered that linalool is present in the night cream. Would you recommend I discontinue the use of this?
    Apparently limonene is also cytotoxic. These two ingredients are found in a great many skincare products. Manufacturers must be aware of this, so why do they insist on using it I wonder.

  • November 23, 2012

    by Oliver

    A bit of perspective is needed.
    I use this on my skin all the time, along with clove and other oils, without any problems. The benefits are enormous, and I notice no side effects.
    The link to the study no longer works, so I don't know if this was in vitro or vivo, but obviously that would make a huge difference - because cells in a petri dish are much more vulnerable, and the skin works as an organ: substances are absorbed into the blood, not directly into the cell membranes.

  • October 19, 2012

    by Dee Dee

    Would love to see some real and conclusive study results to back up these claims, especially when the item/s in question are being touted as that seriously toxic. One study does not really cut it I'm afraid.

  • May 4, 2012

    by Bree

    Huh. Well if I had known that I might not have allowed my friends' mother to pour some drops of lavender oil onto a Q-Tip. She said it apparently helps with healing. Apparently her pseudoscience healing remedies should be met with further critique and investigation.

  • August 12, 2011

    by Trenton Wozniak

    Lavender is toxic for the skin. Do your research people! Lavender is photo-toxic on the skin, which means it causes the skin to prematurely age and become overly sensitive to the sun. Also Lavender is known to cause "cell death" and should not be applied to the skin by any means. Do not apply on children!

  • May 15, 2010

    by Vag

    its not cycotoxic or anything like that when used in allowed concentrations and ratios.. as well as many other things wrongfully accused of the same... before you listen to anyone listen to reason... anything in great amounts can harm you, even water.......

  • February 15, 2010

    by carol

    I've seen ingredients listed for Yon-ka and several of their products include lavender oil and/or linalool,fairly high on the list (third or fourth in some products). Doesn't it seem strange that Yon-ka would continue to use them if they are harmful? Do you ever talk to anyone at Yon-ka who might have some information about these studies and their response?

  • February 11, 2010

    by marta

    It is specifically a component of the essential oil called linalool. Also it is concentration dependent and I imagine that if "lavender essential oil" or "linalool" are near the end of an ingredients list then its probably safe. Your lavender honey is not an issue at all.

  • February 10, 2010

    by Debbie Boone

    Help! I thought lavender was a "safe" ingredient. I am now confused -- are all lavender products in skin care bad? For instance, is it just the lavender essential oil or is lavender wax and organic lavender honey also bad? It seems like most of the natural and organic products contain some form of lavender. Thank you for your input.

  • January 20, 2010

    by Junko

    Thank you for this post Marta. Pure Skin Care is publishing on their site that 'naturally occurring' linalool is safe. The web has a bunch of puffy eye remedies that include lavender oil (makes me cringe now). I'll be throwing out my tea tree oil now, liked it for it's natural antibacterial qualities. Ran into a DIY recipe yesterday that was simply Aloe & Tea Tree Oil (oh no!)

  • January 20, 2010

    by marta

    Laura, in this case you don't because L'Occitane doesn't list all the ingredients in order. To some extent, the order of the ingredients is a clue to the concentration used.

  • January 20, 2010

    by Laura

    How do you know the concentration of lavender oil in products? Say in this L'Occitane product?

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