Lavender Oil Saved My Skin, But Read This Before Using the Popular Essential Oil
What comes to mind when you think of lavender? Maybe it’s lush, rolling fields of pretty purple flowers. Maybe it’s your relaxing sleep spray or snooze-inducing bath bomb. Maybe it’s your “oily” cousin (yes, that’s a real term for those who consider essential oils a lifestyle) and her side biz pushing aromatherapy accessories.
For me, it’s the time lavender saved my face from scarring after a severe burn. I’ll save you the full story (the takeaway is please do not go snowboarding at high altitude, all day, with no SFP on your face), but I’ll share how it ended. I was seven at the time, and doctors at the emergency room said I’d likely experience permanent scarring on my face. Intent on preventing permanent damage, my mother busted out a bottle of lavender oil and applied diluted mists and poultices—on repeat—until my raw, inflamed skin acquired a healthy blister. I spent three days in bed recovering—but it dried up, it healed, and today I’m scar-free (save for one teeny-tiny sliver on my nose).
Since then, lavender oil has played an essential role in my skincare arsenal—specifically for burns, blisters, bug bites, and other minor plagues. I use it when I accidentally skim my wrist on a frying pan or hit my cheek with a curling iron: The tiniest drop takes the heat away and ramps up healing time (according to me, at least, in a completely unofficial study when compared to the occasions I don’t have lavender). It has helped conquer cold sores, soothed blisters on the back of my heels, and alleviated itchiness. I love lavender in a hand soap or a pillow mist. (I also love it in a cookie and a cocktail, if anyone was wondering.)
But when I see it in a body product, like a lotion, or a face oil—that’s a hard no from me. While I have a deep appreciation for the powerful healing properties of lavender—which date back to ancient times and shouldn’t be understated—I also know that using essential oils can be complicated, and lavender, in particular, is one of those stealthy irritants that can sneak up out of nowhere. (If I use it in a body or face product, my skin will often get aggravated.)
And that’s the thing about essential oils: There’s a lot of nuances when it comes to using them safely and effectively. EO enthusiasts will tout their prolific list of benefits and suggest that they’re a safe, holistic solution to everything from stress and sunburn to acne and arthritis, but almost every dermatologist I’ve talked to recommends a much more measured and skeptical approach when using essential oils—especially on the skin.
So what’s essential to know about this popular essential oil? Turns out, quite a lot.
What is lavender oil?
Let’s start with the basics. “Essential oils are the pure, aromatic compounds of whatever plant, nut, or seed they are extracted from,” says Sarah Biggers-Stewart, founder and CEO of vegan beauty brand CLOVE + HALLOW. The process often involves steam distillation or expression (also called cold-pressing), which produces the purest and most potent essential oil. And speaking of the term “oil,” think of EOs more like extracts than oils. After all, many of these substances are then combined with a neutral carrier oil (like jojoba) to make them safer for use.
Lavender oil is an EO distilled from Lavandula angustifolia, a flowering plant found in the mint family. (Note that not all lavenders are alike—there are other strains not suitable to become an EO.) Like most medicinal plants, lavender contains various active chemicals—including linalool and linalyl acetate, the primary anxiety-alleviating components that have helped make lavender so popular in aromatherapy. (Oddly enough, these are also what makes it irritating—but more on that later).
For skincare and skin healing purposes, lavender oil can be used in its pure, potent form (sometimes straight-up but often diluted with water or carrier oil), or it can appear as an ingredient in a product (in which case it’s important to make sure the manufacturer is using a proper species of lavender and following safety precautions to ensure the amount of oil is safe for topical use).
What are the benefits of lavender oil in skincare?
Lavender has two major things going for it: the aroma (which has anxiolytic effects that can reduce stress and, in turn, improve skin health) and the active ingredients (which are widely believed to have a whole host of skin health benefits). No small wonder, then, that it’s one of the most popular essential oils in all of history.
Additionally, lavender has quite an impressive archaeology that dates back more than 2,500 years and touching everyone from Jesus Christ (Mary is said to have anointed her son’s feet with the oil) to the Romans (who used lavender for its antiseptic and disinfectant properties in their bath rituals) to the Greeks (who relied on it to alleviate insomnia and body aches). Charles VI of France and Queen Elizabeth I were both loyal lavender lovers. It was credited with warding off cholera and preventing plague. It even went on to find a place in World War II medic kits as a treatment for burns and battle wounds.
Today, an affinity for the flower is still going strong—and while professional opinions about the true efficacy are conflicting, there’s quite a bit of science to explain its strong standing in the wellness world.
“There are studies showing that lavender oil in skin and body care preparations can be anti-inflammatory, collagen stimulating, and antimicrobial, helping with a variety of conditions involving irritated skin such as acne,” says Biggers-Stewart.
And when it comes to wounds and burns (cue my snowboarding story), one study found that the area of wounds treated topically with lavender oil was significantly decreased when compared to the control group, suggesting that lavender has the potential to promote healing. Another study showed lavender could accelerate wound healing.
More studies suggest that lavender has a whole bevy of additional beauty benefits: It can allegedly reduce wrinkles, discoloration, dark spots, and hyperpigmentation, and even alleviate hair loss and combat fungal infections.
What’s more, there’s another fascinating layer to lavender’s potential as a beauty elixir—and it’s all about the connection between stress and skin. As you likely know by now, too much of the stress hormone cortisol can cause widespread inflammation, premature aging, and a whole slew of other systemic skin issues. “Cortisol breaks down collagen, damages skin barrier function and causes inflammatory skin issues like acne, eczema, and psoriasis,” Amy Wechsler, M.D., a double board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist, previously told Hello Giggles. “It can also disrupt the formation of new collagen, and sluggish collagen production makes the skin thinner and weaker.”
So, what can counteract cortisol? Reducing stress. And what can help reduce stress? (Take one guess—you got this.)
Yep, ding ding ding! “There’s strong evidence to suggest that lavender oil can alleviate anxiety and depression, induce relaxation, promote a sense of calm, and support sleep,” says Biggers-Stewart. In short: It’s quite possible that if lavender can help you reduce stress, which in turn reduces cortisol, then a clear, healthy mind can contribute to clear, healthy skin.
But before you toss your products and prescriptions and turn to lavender as a solution for all your skincare concerns (please don’t do that!), it’s important to consider the context of these studies—and figure out what the science is (and isn’t) really saying.
“This is still an emerging area of research, and for many of these claims, I don’t think there is enough data to definitively say that lavender oil is better than traditional treatments,” says Aegean Chan, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Santa Barbara.
She points out that while there are a seemingly endless amount of studies on lavender, most of them are done in vitro (meaning in the lab, in petri dishes, or on animals, not in the real world on humans) or in very small clinical studies using people—which makes it difficult to draw a definitive conclusion about efficacy.
So without decisive research—and in addition to some risks—you’ll want to proceed with a bit of optimistic caution when it comes to incorporating lavender in your self-care routine.
What are the risks of using lavender oil in skincare?
Let’s get one thing straight about using all botanicals: Just because they’re “natural” doesn’t mean they’re safer than synthetic ingredients—or even safe at all.
“As we say in the formulating world: The dose makes the poison,” explains Biggers-Stewart. “EOs are not safe in their undiluted form, so it’s key to follow the proper dosage and delivery protocols.” That means if you’re working with pure lavender, make sure it’s diluted with water or a carrier oil properly, and if you’re using it in a product, be mindful of the amount.
“Lavender contains two common allergens called linalool and linalyl acetate, which can trigger a lifelong contact allergy,” says Dr. Chan. “And the more often you’re exposed, the more likely you are to develop the allergy.”
The greatest risk occurs when lavender is used on skin that is compromised—like skin that is burned or experiencing a rash or an ulcer—since it increases your chances of developing sensitivity. “When your skin is intact, there's less of a risk of the allergen getting exposed to Langerhans cells, which are the immune cells that recognize the allergen and kickstart the process of your immune system developing an allergy,” she explains. “Whereas if you have an open wound, the skin barrier is compromised, so the risk of your immune system noticing that allergen and developing an allergy down the road is higher.”
(At this point in our conversation, Dr. Chan pointed out that my own sensitivity to lavender in adulthood might have been sparked by all the lavender used to treat my burn as a kid. This never would have occurred to me—my mind was blown.)
Another concerning issue is the possible long-term effects of lavender, which haven’t been studied. Over at the Paula’s Choice ingredient database, lavender gets a “poor” rating for safety because, as their research team points out, in-vitro studies indicate that components of lavender oil, specifically linalool and linalyl acetate, can have damaging effects on the skin in as low a concentration as 0.25%. They also point out that while lavender doesn’t seem to be problematic for some people, research has demonstrated that you don’t always need to immediately see or feel the sensitizing effects for your skin to suffer damage.
But don’t toss out your lavender bath soak and hand cream just yet. “Like everything in medicine, this is a very nuanced topic. If you use a lavender lotion a few times a week, your risk of developing an allergy is pretty low,” says Dr. Chan. “It’s when you’re using pure, undiluted lavender essential oil all over your skin all the time—when you're ingesting it, inhaling it, diffusing it—that your risk is going to be much higher.”
Moderation is key. If you notice a new rash or any skin irritation, stop using the product immediately and check in with a dermatologist.
OK, so what’s the safest way to use lavender oil?
1: Investigate the ingredients
When you pick up a product with lavender, take a peek at the INCI list. “I look for other irritating ingredients and will shy away if there are more,” says Biggers-Stewart. “For example, I wouldn’t recommend someone with sensitive skin to use a product with AHAs or BHAs, two popular exfoliating acids, if it also includes lavender essential oil. It might just be too much for the skin barrier.”
Also, keep in mind how many lavender products you’re using at one time. Is it in your shampoo, your hand soap, your lotion, and your hand sanitizer? You might want to cut down or rotate products to prevent overexposure or irritation.
2: Start with a spot test
“Always, always, always patch test—especially if you have sensitive skin or deal with conditions like eczema or psoriasis,” says Biggers-Stewart. A patch test will help you determine if you have a true lavender allergy (which is relatively rare at a rate of approximately 2% in the U.S., according to Dr. Chan).
Dr. Chan recommends doing an open application test when starting a new product to assess whether your skin will have a reaction to it. “You should apply the product on a small area, twice a day, for about a week,” she says. “You can pick a place that’s not that visible, like behind your ear or underneath your chin.” After a week, you can gauge how your skin reacts to the product: If the skin continues to look and feel normal by the end of the week, you’re unlikely to have a significant allergy to the substance tested. If you develop a patch of redness, dryness, or clear dermatitis, then there may be an allergy to the product or one of its ingredients. It's also helpful to note that immediate signs of skin irritation usually indicate an irritant contact dermatitis, while an allergic reaction usually reveals itself only after a few days.
One more caveat: Dr. Chan also points out that if you use a seemingly safe product repeatedly for a long period of time, you could still develop allergic contact dermatitis down the road.
3: Keep an eye on the expiration date
Remember that time your shelf-stable oat milk was past the “best by” date and you cautiously decided to drink it and it was totally fine? Yeah, don’t do that with lavender.
Using any product past its PAO, or “period after opening” label, is a great way to pick up a case of contact dermatitis. (On the back of any beauty product, look for a little symbol showing a jar with its lid off, along with a number—that’s the PAO.)
Essential oils, of course, are no exception to this rule–they can actually be even more problematic. “The components of lavender that are the allergen sensitizers, linalool, and linalyl acetate, are much more allergenic when they’re oxidized,” explains Dr. Chan. She suggests writing down the date you actually open a product (try sticking a sticker on the bottom), storing it in a dry and dark place, and keeping an eye out for any changes in smell in color (which are warning signs for oxidation).
If you’re using a pure lavender essential oil, the same rules still apply—except it has a longer shelf life (about three to four years) rather than a POA. Ask the brand about expiration date if it’s not clear, and keep in mind that the clock starts ticking from the day that oil is distilled—not the day you open it. Dr. Chan suggests factoring in about six months for production time.