Lavender Essential Oil: Chemistry and Therapeutic Properties

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True lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is used for a lavender essential oil, copyright Sharon Falsetto

Lavender is one of the most popular essential oils in clinical aromatherapy practice.

As a plant, lavender has been used medicinally for thousands of years. The various chemical components that go into making up lavender oil define its specific therapeutic properties; scientific research backs up what many aromatherapists already know from everyday use of the oil.

Different Types of Lavender Species

There are various types of lavender species which are used as an essential oil in clinical aromatherapy practice. Lavender oils include true lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), lavender stoechas (Lavandula stoechas), spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia) and lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia) , although other species and sub species of lavender contain similar chemical constituents to those listed.

True lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the most common species harvested for its essential oil, and has been in use for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks used lavender to treat throat infections, and lavender was grown in Medieval herb gardens. True lavender grows at altitudes of above 2,000 ft, and is native to the Mediterranean region – it has small purplish-blue flowers.

Lavender stoechas (Lavandula stoechas) was named after the island of Hyeres which was actually called Stoechades by the Romans. The ancient Romans were the probable users of this type of lavender, and used it to make perfume for their baths. Until the middle of the 18th Century, lavender stoechas was used medicinally in England, but lavender stoechas is quite different from the true lavender flower; it is short, spiky and less spectacular than the true plant. Lavender stoechas is a hardy herb with purple-blue flowers, found on sand and crystalline rocks on the European coastline, particularly in France.

Spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia) was traditionally used for headaches, rheumatic pain, colic and dyspepsia, as indicated in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia. It grows at lower altitudes than true lavender and has a very high yield. Spike lavender has gray-blue flowers, and is mainly grown in France and Spain for essential oil use.

Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia) is the newest addition to the family of lavenders used as essential oils. It is essentially a hybrid of true lavender and spike lavender, first appearing in the early 1900s. It grows at low altitude and should not be confused with true lavender. True lavender has a single stem whereas lavandin has a three-pronged stem.

Chemical Composition of Lavender

Lavender as a species, and within the species, varies from plant to plant and from oil to oil due to factors such as climate, environment, altitude grown at and country of origin. However, each type of lavender oil does carry a similar chemical make-up. The main chemical constituents of lavender are as follows:

  • Lavandula angustifolia – predominately esters and alcohols

  • Lavandula stoechas – predominately ketones

  • Lavandula latifolia – predominately oxides, alcohols, followed by ketones and monoterpenes

  • Lavandula x intermedia – predominately alcohols and esters.

Scientific Research on the Use of Lavender Oil

Lavender is perhaps one of the most studied essential oils in scientific research, and there are many studies on the effectiveness of lavender essential oil for various health problems. Research studies on lavender oil conclude:

  • Lavender essential oil could potentially be used to treat rhinitis patients as it demonstrated a strong antioxidant activity against bacteria.
  • Redness in wound healing was less in patients who received lavender oil after episiotomy (perineal incision in obstetric and midwifery) than those who received povidone-iodine.
  • Lavender (Lavandula viridis) oil had potential antifungal activity against various types of fungal infections.  The actual percentage of chemical constituents contributed to the effectiveness of the treatment and the final outcome.

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