Lavender Essential Oil

What exactly is an essential oil?

blooming organic lavender at pelindaba lavender farm

Simply put, an essential oil is a concentrated liquid containing one or more volatile aromatic compounds found in any given plant (volatile – easily vaporized; aromatic compound – one with an aroma or scent). The term “essential” simply refers to the fact that the oil carries the distinctive scent or “essence” of the plant – in this case lavender – in which it is produced.

Essential oils are generally extracted from their plant source by steam distillation (as we do with lavender flowerheads), or by mechanical expression when the oil content of the plant material is high (such as for citrus peel oils), or by solvent extraction when the oil content is too small for expression or cannot withstand the high heat of distillation.

Once extracted, Lavender Essential Oil is stored in ultra-violet light protected glass bottles to prevent the oil from breaking down into its various constituents – a common practice in bottling red wines for similar reasons. Interestingly enough, some change does occur in the bottled essential oil, resulting in its “mellowing out” over time, again rather like a red-wine. Indeed at Pelindaba we make it a standard practice to age all our Lavender Essential Oil for at least a year (and often longer) to reap the benefit of this natural phenomenon that we discovered during our “noses-on” research.

Among all the essential oils, Lavender Essential Oil is somewhat unique in that it is one of the very few essential oils that can be applied undiluted directly onto the skin with no toxic effects (despite the regrettable and we fear unknowingly regurgitated claims from some others to the contrary). Traditional dabbing undiluted on the temples to relieve headache, as well as our own use and widely followed recommendation as a potent sleep inducer when dabbed on the upper lip, or even more “dangerously” as an antiseptic or topical anesthetic even on open wounds, has produced no toxic effects of which we are aware.

organic lavender essential oil

Lavender essential oil can be combined with carrier liquids that allow it to be dispersed into the air by a spray or nebulizer or revolatilized in diffusers or over other sources of heat. Most commonly however it is blended with other oils or dermatologic bases such as lotions and creams, lending fragrance and its other properties to the finished product.

As an important side note, many of the benefits of lavender essential oil can be found in lavender hydrosol or floral water. As lavender hydrosol is a colloidal solution in which lavender essential oil is “the dispersed phase” and the water in which the oil is suspended “the continuous phase”, this is not surprising. Indeed, lavender hydrosol can be properly considered a conveniently dilute form of lavender essential oil in which the oil does not separate from the water as it would in other oil-water combinations without the use of an additional dispersing agent.

In this sense (despite the semantic debate we have had with a high-school chemistry teacher) lavender hydrosol might reasonably be considered a “pure” natural product. As such it brings with it all the benefits of the many properties of the essential oil in situations in which the use of the essential oil might reasonably considered wasteful and or otherwise impractical.

Some further information regarding the Constituents & Properties of Lavender Essential Oil is offered below for those who have the interest to read more.

Lavender essential oil is considered a phytochemical, not only because it is plant derived but also because the term is generally used to describe such compounds with therapeutic use. Plants have been used for centuries for medicinal purposes, and even now some of the most commonly used or important pharmaceuticals are plant-based – from aspirin (white willow tree) for inflammation and pain management to paclitaxel ("Taxol") from the pacific yew tree for the treatment of certain forms of cancer.

Like all essential oils, lavender essential oil has many components. Indeed, it has been considered by many to be one of the most complex of essential oils. While several other constituents of lavender essential oil have been identified, primarily through mass spectrometry, the two most prominent constituents are linalyl acetate and linalool, with terpenes and others in significantly smaller quantities

With the variable proportions in which these two dominant constituents occur among the many lavender varieties, it has been reasonably theorized that different varieties of lavender flowers and the oils they generate may produce varied therapeutic responses. Note however our use of the word “may”. We have seen little data supporting such claims, but as alluded to elsewhere, this has not stopped many from writing declaratively that only certain oils are suitable for certain purposes while others are not.

Unless there are data readily available that we have not seen, there has been little research to back this frequently regurgitated claim. Given that linalool and linalyl acetate are by far the most prominent constituents in all the commonly used lavender essential oils, it is reasonable to suspect that most if not all of the properties ascribed to lavender essential oil are due to the presence of either or both of these two dominant constituents. As such then, the claimed benefits of one or another oil can be reasonably hypothesized to be associated with the use of most lavender essential oils regardless of the originating cultivar or species.

That said, there is no question that the fragrances emitted by the different varieties can be very different, one from the other. What makes the picture more obscure however are our own observations that, even in a group of individuals who pride themselves on having good “noses” (not as expert perhaps as the truly professional “noses” found in the perfume industry), not only will the same oil be identified by its fragrance differently by different members of the group, but also that the same individual can identify the same oil differently on different occasions. Even though we have employed the technique of sniffing of coffee grounds “to clear the nasal palate” when evaluating the fragrance of different oils, we have continued to be struck by the inconsistencies in identification of lavender essential oil varieties by fragrance alone — which is the way most differentiate the oils. Short of mass spectrometry or other more elaborate techniques employed in the perfume industry, personal preference clearly reigns supreme in daily use.

In the absence then of compelling data that refute these observations, we continue to doubt the reality of significant therapeutic differences among the various lavender varieties, at least based on their respective pharmacologies. Subjective differences and preferences with respect to fragrance and taste are obviously an entirely different matter, and while they probably play a significant role in personal care and culinary uses of lavender respectively, the role of these variations in differential therapeutic claims remains more one of conjecture.

Given the geographically widespread and centuries-long use of many lavender varieties for therapeutic properties, it is likely that any differences, if indeed present, are likely to be nuanced or more likely driven, as said, by individual subjective preference or, dare we say it, competitive imperatives. Apart from their having little scientific or even empiric support, such claims are relatively harmless so long as they do not deny the presence of similar if not identical or even more potent properties to the lavender essential oil derived from other varieties of lavender.

Unfortunately, all too often readers of the literature and various websites will find what we have found – that among the most egregious of these differential claims are those made in connection with angustifolia species (or so-called “English” lavender – perhaps not the most appropriate name given lavender’s Mediterranean origins) vs. the equally or even more popular hybrid intermedia species. Most of these discriminations emanate from English authors, perhaps not surprisingly, even to the point of some declaring that angustifolia is “true” lavender while speaking dismissively of intermedias (commonly called “French” lavenders) as “lavandins” or worse “not lavender”. We would not be shocked, not even truly shocked, to learn that competitive commercial imperatives lurk behind what we regard as an artificial distinction. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a lavender is a lavender is a lavender.

It is entirely possible if not likely that such distinctions may have more to do with either a subliminal but understandable nationalistic bias, or with a more overt but equally understandable commercial practice— namely to justify the commonly higher prices of angustifolia vs. intermedia oils. Rarely if ever is the obvious stated – the significantly lower essential oil yields of popular angustifolia cultivars than those distilled from popular intermedia oils. While supply-and-demand economic pragmatism may be understandable, it is something altogether different from the less forgivable inferential claims of differential therapeutic efficacy. Regardless, most of the lavender essential oil in use today outside of the perfume industry around the world appears to be that distilled from Intermedia species, no doubt for the very economics-driven fact of significantly greater essential oil yields just alluded to. If the marketplace is to be used then as any kind of reference point, then that simple fact speaks volumes.

Regardless, we will from time to time publish interesting testimonials in the author’s own words regarding differential therapeutic claims when such claims appear to be genuine, and leave it for time and experience to teach us what they may.

In the end, then, we are content to say again that, until we are persuasively demonstrated otherwise, to each his or her own. Ultimately, what works for each of us independently is what really counts for most.