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Lavender Essential Oil: Skin Care Friend – or Foe?

Posted Jul 13 2009 10:05pm
2009.07.13--Picture of Lavender Essential Oil
Pictured:  A vial of Lavender essential oil

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, allergic reaction, and even in exhibiting cytotoxicity in some cases.

Reported Benefits

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 antibacterial, antifungal, 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, in the study (published in the journal Photochemistry and Photobiology ), it was 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.

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, but that’s another blog entry.  Literally – click here.)

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.  As yourself some crucial questions:

  • Has this ingredient been demonstrated to have this effect been demonstrated 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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