There are over 250,000 lavender related products for sale on Amazon. That sure is a whole lot of lavender. These range from essential oils, teas, car fresheners, lavender chocolates, perfumes and cosmetics to religious crosses.
Lavender is believed to offer a wide range of health and wellness benefits. Purported uses include anxiety relief, cancer treatment, depression, insomnia, migraine, pain relief, anti-ageing and anti-inflammatory properties.
The question that needs to be answered is whether all this hype about lavender is warranted or is it more marketing that science?
Table of Contents
- What Is Lavender Oil?
- Is There Any Research?
- Does Lavender Oil have antioxidant properties?
- Does It Help Treat Diabetes?
- Does It Improve Mood and Reduce Stress?
- Does It Support Brain Function?
- Does It Heal Burns and Cuts?
- Does It Promote Healthy Skin and Hair?
- Does It Relieve Headaches?
- Does it Improve Sleep or Help Insomnia?
- Does It Relieve Pain?
- Is It A Complementary Cancer Therapy?
- Is Lavender Oil Safe & Are There Interactions?
What Is Lavender Oil?
Lavender was used in ancient Greek and Roman times. The name is believed to derive from the Latin word ‘lavo’ meaning to wash as steam baths infused with lavender were used for relaxation and brain stimulation in those days. It was also used as a perfume and to mummify bodies in ancient Egypt.
Lavender is a small branched shrub with characteristic flowers and grows as high as 60 cm. It is native to the Mediterranean basin and Arabian Peninsula but also grows in Australia and the US. Not everyone loves lavender and it is classified as a weed in parts of Australia and Spain.
Lavender is sold as an essential oil, loose tea, dried flowers and as a standardized liquid or capsule.
It is used in three main ways: as an aromatherapy, topically or internally.
It is classified as ‘likely safe’ as a food and ‘possibly safe’ as medicine (1).
Lavender flowers contain a minimum of 1.5% essential oil. Essential lavender oil is extracted from the dried flowers and aerial leaves via steam distillation.
There are two main forms of lavender oil:
- True lavender oil which is derived from Lavendula angustifolia and contains linalylacetate, linalool, campher, beta-ocimere and cineol.
- Spike Lavender oil which is derived from L. officinalis and contains 35% cineol.
Lavender essential oil should not be ingested as it is potentially toxic.
Is There Any Research?
There are over 2000 published studies relating to lavender and over 200 published clinical trials.
To put this into context, this is about one sixth of the number of studies and clinical trials on Prozac.
At first, this may look like there is relatively little research on lavender but that is actually not the case. Considering the fact that overall there is far less research on natural products, lavender is doing very well in terms of publications.
Though admittedly the cynic in me can’t help but weigh up the popularity of lavender (the 250,000 products on Amazon) to the actual science (2000 published studies).
Does Lavender Oil have antioxidant properties?
Essential oils often demonstrate anti-oxidant properties and therefore it is biologically plausible that lavender oil could have benefits as an anti-oxidant agent.
There are no robust clinical trials looking at the anti-oxidant properties of lavender. There is a key paper from Brazil which is often quoted as proof of lavender oils antioxidant activity (2).
The researchers used a special assay (DPPH) to measure antioxidant activity in vitro. The experiment was done in triplicate to ensure reliability of the results. The study found that lavender oil exhibited anti-oxidant activity in a dose dependent manner (meaning that anti-oxidant activity increased with increasing doses of lavender oil).
The authors of the study explain that the DPPH test was just a screening tool to assess for antioxidant properties which is necessary prior to clinical studies and conclude that it ‘supports interest in the application of lavender oil as a therapeutic agent’.
Bottom Line: It is too soon to decide whether or not lavender oil has a clinical role as an anti-oxidant benefits.
Does It Help Treat Diabetes?
Interestingly diabetes is not usually listed among the umpteen benefits of lavender. Ah, the one that got away. Till now that is. Recently, some popular bloggers (pseudo bloggers actually) addressed this oversight and have linked lavender oil with diabetes. A really long shot if you ask me.
There are no clinical trials looking at the effect of lavender on the treatment of diabetes. There are 22 results for the search terms ‘lavender’ and ‘diabetes’. I have to admit (but don’t tell anyone) that I was looking forward to settling in for the evening to read the 22 articles until I discovered that a big problem.
There happens to be a researcher by the name of ‘Lavender’ who studies ‘diabetes’ but he does not study the plant lavender. When I excluded all of Dr Lavender’s diabetes studies, I was left with just 1 paper (3).
Bitterly disappointed, I followed the trials and tribulations of 48 Tunisian rats aged 15 weeks old. The rats were housed five to a cage and had ‘water and food ad libitum’. All very five star and humane (or whatever the rat equivalent would be) – until they were injected with lavender, stressed by alloxan therapy to induce diabetes and sacrificed. The paper was a page turner for sure.
The study showed that lavender offered some protective effects against alloxan induced diabetes. What an anti-climax. I am hardly likely to talk to any of my diabetic patients based on this rat kill.
Bottom Line: There is no human trial evidence to support the role of lavender in diabetes.
Does It Improve Mood and Reduce Stress?
There are a number of interesting studies in this area.
A British study evaluated the effect of oral lavender capsules on responses to anxiety provoking film clips (4). A total of 97 study subjects were randomized to placebo or lavender capsules. Anxiety measures recorded included mood, heart rate and hearty rate variation. The study participants watched a neutral film clip, an anxiety provoking film clip and a light hearted clip.
The study found that lavender may have anxiolytic effects but this is limited to conditions of low anxiety and is most evident in female as compared to male study participants.
An Austrian study of 200 patients showed that ambient odors of orange and lavender reduced anxiety and improved mood in patients waiting for dental treatment (5).
A number of studies have evaluated the role of essential oil on agitated behaviors in patients with dementia. To date, the results of the study are inconclusive with some showing no benefit and others showing modest benefit (6, 7)
Bottom Line: There are no high quality randomised clinical trials of large numbers of patients for lavender in mood and anxiety. However, numerous smaller studies consistently show that lavender enhances mood and lifts mild anxiety.
Does It Support Brain Function?
There is considerable interest in the potential role of essential oils in supporting brain function and specifically improving cognitive function in Alzheimer’s disease. The rationale for this overall interest in essential oils in brain function directly relates to the fact that essential oils have low molecular weights and can penetrate the blood brain barrier and enter the brain.
Currently the state of research into the neuro-protective and anti aging potential of lavender is in its infancy.
A comprehensive review of the state of research in this field was published from investigators in Pakistan (8). They discussed cholinesterase inhibitory potentials, anti-amyloid effects, superoxide dismutase and a whole other array of bewildering molecules as possible modes of action of lavender oil in the central nervous system.
The upshot is that lavender oil is a promising but as yet unproven candidate for the support of brain function. The authors concluded that ‘ research needs to be done to evaluate the role of essential oils (including lavender oil) as multi-potent agents’ (meaning that they can do more than one thing).
Bottom line: Lavender oil shows promise in the support of brain function but is as yet is unproven.
Does It Heal Burns and Cuts?
Lavender oil is often used for minor wounds, insect bites and burns. There are a number of studies looking at lavender oil in healing but most of these focus on pain or anxiety as opposed to healing per se.
In fact the main clinical study looking at lavender oil in episiotomy wound care showed no benefit of lavender oil over iodine (9).
A study done in rabbits showed that lavender oil was increased the speed of healing pathos mouth ulcers (10).
Theoretically, there are two ways that lavender could help with wounds and burns. Firstly it has been shown in rat models to accelerate granulation via a molecule called tissue growth factor (11). Secondly, like many essential oils, it has some antibacterial properties (12).
Bottom Line: Lavender is commonly used for wounds and there is biological plausibility but no real clinical trial data to support this.
Does It Promote Healthy Skin and Hair?
Lavender is commonly used in cosmaceuticals. Similar to the data on wounds and burns, there is essentially no clinical trial data on lavender for healthy skin. That being said, it is certainly biologically plausible as mentioned above.
Hair on the other hand is another story. Studies in mice have shown that lavender oil promoted hair growth (13). Lavender is also classified as possibly for hair loss in the natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (1).
Interestingly, studies in young hirsute women showed that lavender oil reduces unwanted hair growth (14). This may seem contradictory at first. However, it fits with the general theme that is emerging from lavender research on differential effects of lavender in men and women due to effects of lavender on sex hormones.
Bottom Line: There is no conclusive scientific data on lavender for skin health but it is certainly biologically plausible. There are studies suggesting a role for lavender in hair health (assuming that we all agree that hair growth is good in men and not so good in certain places in women).
Does It Relieve Headaches?
A collaboration between German and Iranian investigators evaluated the effect of 15 minutes of inhalation of lavender oil in patients with an established diagnosis of migraine headaches (15). The study looked at 197 migraine headache events in 47 patients.
The study found a statistically significant reduction in headache severity in patients who inhaled lavender oil as compared to control patients who inhaled liquid paraffin. However it is worth noting that almost 50% of the placebo group (32/68) reported an improvement in their headache which suggests a significant placebo effect in this patient group.
Bottom Line: Lavender has been shown to be of benefit in migraine headaches but there may be a significant placebo effect.
Does it Improve Sleep or Help Insomnia?
There are a total of 15 clinical studies looking at the effects of lavender in insomnia. This is interestingly little considering the widespread use of lavender as a sleep aid.
One study was done in Minnesota and looked at 70 Fitbit wearing college students with self-reported insomnia (16).
The study compared lavender oil patches plus sleep hygiene education versus sleep hygiene education alone. The study found that the lavender and sleep hygiene group had a statistically significant improvement in sleep quality and the feeling of waking feeling refreshed.
Another study looked at 60 healthy nurses who were doing shift work (17). Nurses who inhaled essential oil for 3 minutes and slept near a lavender infused stone stone (yes, another product you can buy on Amazon) with a control group.
There was a statistically significant improvement in sleep quality in the lavender intervention arm as compared to the control group.
Bottom Line: There is scientific backing to support the role of lavender as a sleep aid.
Does It Relieve Pain?
There are a number of studies looking at the analgesic potential of lavender.
An open crossover study was conducted on 34 hemodialysis patients with arterio venous fistula (AVF) (18). A direct comparison was made between topically applied lavender oil, water (as placebo) and no intervention (as control) on pain experienced during insertion of large dialysis needles into the fistulae.
The study found that lavender resulted in a statistically significant reduction in the reported intensity of pain. Given the characteristic and easily recognizable scent of lavender, it is understandable that it was difficult to design a randomized placebo controlled study. That being said the current study design of an open crossover study limits the weight that can be given to this study.
A single blind Iranian study looked at the effect of adding lavender oil to inhaled oxygen in 40 patients post-open heart surgery (19). Inhaling lavender via the oxygen mask had no significant effect on reducing pain scores in these patients.
A Turkish study evaluated the use of lavender oil as non pharmacological adjutant pain relief in patients with renal colic (stones) (20). The study enrolled 100 patients who are assigned to standard pain killers (diclofenac) or standard therapy plus lavender oil aromatherapy. The study showed no difference in the pain score at the first time point of 10 minutes but did detect a significantly lower pain score in the diclofenac plus lavender oil at 30 minutes.
The study was not blinded which again is understandable from a logistical point of view (lavender has a scent) but this does limit the interpretation of the results. Additionally the study showed that women responded better than men to the combination of diclofenac plus lavender oil which again raises questions about the generalizability of the study.
Bottom Line: The science is conflicting about the role of lavender as an analgesic, but it has been shown to help pain in some studies.
Is It A Complementary Cancer Therapy?
Lavender has been shown to be beneficial in the relief of cancer related symptoms such as pain, anxiety and depression. However, it has not been been shown to have any direct effect on treating cancer at this time.
A Korean study looked at lavender hand massage 58 patients with terminal cancer. (21).
The study assigned 28 patients to hand massage with a blended mixture of lavender, bergamot and frankincense in sweet almond oil for 5 minutes daily for seven days. The control group received five minute hand massage with just almond oil alone. There was a statistically significant decrease in pain and depression scores in the intervention arm of the study that included essential oils.
The challenges with this study include the fact that it is impossible to select out the role of lavender oil versus that of bergamot and frankincense. Equally true blinding would be difficulty in this study owing to the characteristic aroma of lavender.
Perillyl alcohol is a monoterpene which is isolated from essential lavender oil and is also found in peppermint, spearmint, cherries and celery seed (22). It has been shown to selectively kill tumor cells and revert tumor cells back to a differentiated pre-cancerous state. Animal studies have shown that it is beneficial in cancers such as pancreatic, breast and liver. However, preliminary human trials were not clinical effective and were associated with significant gastrointestinal upset.
Bottom Line: Lavender oil has been shown to be helpful in relieving cancer related symptoms but has not been proven as an anticancer agent.
Is Lavender Oil Safe & Are There Interactions?
Side effects of lavender include skin irritation, joint pains and headache.
Lavender can also cause skin irritation and photosensitivity.
The most notable side effect of lavender relates to its pro-estrogenic and anti-androgenic profile. Lavender has been noted to cause gynecomastia (breast development) in pre-teens boys (23).
Lavender should be avoided in the following groups of people:
- Pregnant and nursing moms
- People taking sedative to hypnotic drug as lavender may increase their effect
- People on anticoagulation as it may increase bleeding
- People taking lipid lowering drug as lavender may increase the lipid lowering effects
- People with hormone sensitive tumors.
What is it reasonable to think about Lavender Oil based on the available evidence?
The science supports the role of lavender as a mild anxiolytic, sleep aid and migraine reliever. Lavender is also a potential anti oxidant and anti ageing agent but needs to be further evaluated.
In general, it works when symptoms are on the mild end of the scale and is more effective in women.
Two points of clarification:
Am I mad if lavender works for me but it is unproven?
Definitely not. We need to remember that there is no standardization of lavender products used across research studies. As an example, there is a big difference between true and spike lavender oil. Furthermore, the chemical composition of essential oils vary depending on the extraction techniques used, the country of origin, the climate, soil type and age of the plant.
This alone can account for inconclusive studies and variability among studies or in your own personal experiences. I tell my patients that I am delighted if they get better even if they get better for some reason other than my treatment.
Also, the fact that lavender oil often seems to work best for women could easily be written off as ‘female madness’. Before you even dare make any jokes, may I point out the fact that lavender has estrogenic and anti-androgen effects which may well explain the gender differences observed.
Does all this mean that you should not enjoy lavender?
Quite the contrary. I wrote this blog while munching on lavender laden chocolate and wearing socks from my lavender scented drawer. As Freud said ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’
I can justify my lavender fetish by saying that ‘Sometimes lavender is just lavender’. In other words, I enjoy lavender but am under no illusions that it has anti-diabetic or anti-cancer properties (aka #consumer but smart).
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- O’Connor DW, Eppingstall B, Taffe J, van der Ploeg ESA randomized, controlled cross-over trial of dermally-applied lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) oil as a treatment of agitated behaviour in dementia. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2013 Nov 13;13:315. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-13-315.
- Ayaz M, Sadiq A, Junaid M, Ullah F, Subhan F, Ahmed J. Neuroprotective and Anti-Aging Potentials of Essential Oils from Aromatic and Medicinal Plants. Front Aging Neurosci. 2017 May 30;9:168. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2017.00168. eCollection 2017. Review.
- Vakilian K, Atarha M, Bekhradi R, Chaman R. Healing advantages of lavender essential oil during episiotomy recovery: a clinical trial. mComplement Ther Clin Pract. 2011 Feb;17(1):50-3. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2010.05.006. Epub 2010 Jun 17.
- Altaei DT. Topical lavender oil for the treatment of recurrent aphthous ulceration.Am J Dent. 2012 Feb;25(1):39-43.
- Mori HM, Kawanami H, Kawahata H, Aoki M. Wound healing potential of lavender oil by acceleration of granulation and wound contraction through induction of TGF-β in a rat model.BMC Complement Altern Med. 2016 May 26;16:144. doi: 10.1186/s12906-016-1128-7.
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- Possible efficacy of Lavender and Tea tree oils in the treatment of young women affected by mild idiopathic hirsutism.Lee BH, Lee JS, Kim YC. J Endocrinol Invest. 2013 Jan;36(1):50-4. doi: 10.3275/8766. Epub 2012 Nov 26.
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- [Effects of aroma hand massage on pain, state anxiety and depression in hospice patients with terminal cancer]. Chang SY. Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi. 2008 Aug;38(4):493-502. Korean
- Perillyl alcohol: applications in oncology. Belanger JT.Altern Med Rev. 1998 Dec;3(6):448-57. Review.
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