Botanical Portrait: Lavender
The Plant from the Old World
Ingredients are the life force of a beauty product, especially that of a holistic and effective one. Even though this might sound obvious, I think that is often underestimated in a world of fast beauty and fast living. This quickly became clear to me when I began studying organic cosmetic science, as did the immensity of resources (plants) that Nature provides. With this in mind, my first goal as a holistic skincare formulator was to get to know every botanical in the plant kingdom from a holistic perspective, under the light of different disciplines and philosophies: botany, herbalism, aromatherapy, perfumery, and the most exciting one… chemistry. 👀
This is, of course, a colossal task that is more like a lifelong endeavor. It is challenging, inspiring, fun, and equally puzzling at times. But it allows me, little by little, to use botanical ingredients with a freedom that only comes with knowledge. In any case, this is me philosophizing about holistic beauty once again. ☺
The thing is that with my adventures and discoveries into the holistic beauty world arose the necessity to organize all the plant information and gathered wisdom – the materia medica (borrowing the concept from herbalism) – in a way I could easily access and use.
This then became the section of the Journal called A Floral Affair, where I can share with you my notes and descriptions of botanicals that I investigate and work with regularly. I thought it would be useful for me and maybe fun for you to be able to step into the world of a plant you’ve used in your skincare forever but never really knew much about, or perhaps also of the botanical ingredients you might have never heard of before.
I chose lavender to inaugurate this section because it is a truly foundational plant for skincare. It’s such a complete plant that it is widely used and well-known for many things: cuisine, herbal medicine, adornment, and cosmetics.
THE PROVENCE PLANT
Originally native to the mountains of the Mediterranean, lavender is a small shrub with typically grayish-blue leaves and bright purple flowers that are very fragrant and grow at the top of the stalk. Lavender is a perennial plant. This means that it endures and thrives season after season for a number of years (five to six years, depending on how you take care of it). Once you plant it, lavender takes a few seasons to get settled into the soil and yield quality blossoms (Carpenter, 2015). Since this summer is the first season for ours, we’ll have to be patient and let it do its thing until it’s ready to be harvested.
When in full bloom lavender is quite beautiful to see and pleasant to be around because of its soft floral aroma, so we decided to plant it in the middle of our garden, close to the entrance. This way we are able to interact with its smell as often as possible. Lavender is usually best harvested when the flowers begin to open, however if you are growing lavender to extract its essential oil (our goal in the near future) it’s better to harvest once the flowers are fully in bloom, making sure you get part of the stem because it also contains some oil (Carpenter, 2015).
Lavender is a plant rich in history and mythology. It’s classic in the truest sense of the word. It has been around for ages; it has a long history, tinted with myths, and has never gone out of fashion. Although, do plants ever actually go out of fashion… ? In ancient Rome, lavender was used to tame lions and tigers (Stewart, 2018). It was also one of the favorite aromatic plants used by the Romans in their bathing rituals, and spread around in churches and houses for festive and special occasions (Tisserand, 1977). Likewise, the Arabs and Greeks believed in lavender’s purifying, relaxing and healing properties (just like we do today but now with more scientific proof 😉). As these empires expanded, the lavender trade spread throughout Europe and Asia, where the herb was used as a perfume, an essential oil, and for herbal medicine (Traditional Medicinals, 2016). Nowadays the lavender plant is cultivated in every continent, in places as diverse as New Zealand, California and the Himalayas, due to its preeminence in the natural healing first aid kit.
I myself am a lavender fan. When I’m not formulating with it, my encounters with the plant usually happen at nighttime and are paired with chamomile in a warm tea before bed. Recently, I got my mother a set of cute lavender sachets and the sales guy at the store said he puts one under his pillow during the day so that his bed smells like lavender when he goes to sleep. Such a great idea! Some evenings I also like to burn it as incense, and of course it has a frequent role in the skincare I make for myself.
Lavender belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae) and has 39 known species with hundreds of varieties, including some hybrids (Stewart, 2018). While they are all lavender plants, this diversity – plus the differences produced by the soil and the climate in which they grow - yields flowers, oils and extracts that are slightly different in their perfume and chemical profile, which then determines their properties, actions, and safety considerations too. The most renowned species for its superior fragrance and therapeutic properties belong to the Lavandula genus, Lavandula angustifolia being the most famous one. This is our lavender, the one we grow on our farm in France.
So why did we decide to go for that particular species? Well, therapeutically speaking, true lavender, the common name for Lavandula angustifolia, is probably the most versatile version of the plant (Tisserand, 1977). It is used in herbalism, aromatherapy, perfumery, and skincare. Besides, it also attracts pollinators like bees and butterflies and is deer resistant, which is great because deers are abundant at our farm, and we don’t want them eating all our plants!
We wanted to find a supplier in France that shared our standards and could provide us with true baby lavenders. It wasn’t easy but we ended up finding a plant nursery that has been around for decades and specializes in growing aromatic plants using the same biodynamic techniques we use ourselves.
As a plant that is classified as a nervine (one that calms the nerves), true lavender is balancing and soothing for the mind and the emotions, and it helps restore a general sense of well being to the body (Tisserand, 1977). 💆♀️ But lavender also has a broad-spectrum action on the skin:
Anti-inflammatory (especially in combination with chamomile essence and at less than 1%)
(Tisserand, 1977; Rhind, 2016; Rose, 1999; Schnaubelt, 2011).
Even though you can get the principal therapeutic benefits of lavender by using the plant in different forms, many of the effects that lavandula angustifolia has on the skin are associated to the essential oil that is distilled from the flowers and stems, and its particular chemical profile, which is mainly dominated by two constituents: linalool and linalyl acetate.
Linalool is, in chemistry terms, a terpene alcohol. This probably doesn’t mean much to you (as it didn’t to me at the beginning of my beauty formulation journey ;)). To put it simply: these are the fragrant and healing compounds that are known as ‘friendly molecules’ and are found in many plants. As for linalyl acetate, it is an ester, which tends to be a gentle and sedative kind of compound (Pengelly, 1996). The relative abundance of these two constituents is a sign of high quality in Lavandula angustifolia, although it is always wise to all consider essential oils as a synergy of compounds (a balance of active dominant compounds and of less dominant compounds).
Lavender may be used with benefit on any kind of skin (oily, dry, sensitive, acneic), though it seems to work best in combination with other essences (Tisserand, 1977).
Just to mention a couple of scientific studies that support the properties of lavender essential oil:
- One study that was performed in 2016 found that L. angustifolia oil prevented the spread of the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (commonly found on the skin and often contributing to skin ailments like pimples and cellulitis) and repressed the inflammatory response of the immune system (Giovannini et al., 2016).
- Another study focusing on L. angustifolia’s potential regenerative and healing effects suggested that topical application of lavender oil at 1% encouraged the synthesis of collagen (types I and III), promoting healing and wound closure (Mori et al., 2016).
Although lavender is considered one of the gentlest and safest essences on the skin, like with any essential oil I learned that it is vital to look for the GC/MS (Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry) analysis before buying it in order to know what the oil composition is. This is especially important in the case of true lavender essential oil since it is the most often adulterated (Rose, 1999).
Another discovery I’ve made in regards to essential oils is that being mindful of their use is always a good thing. There’s so much plant material that goes into the creation of a small amount of essential oil. Generally, in order to produce 1 pound of lavender oil, about 220 pounds of lavender flowers are needed (PubMed Health Glossary). This, of course, can have an impact in the environment and helps put in perspective not only the potency of essential oils but also how a really tiny amount goes a long way in skincare formulation. 😉
Another way to enjoy lavender goodness is as a hydrosol. A hydrosol is the plant water usually co-produced during the steam or hydro distillation of plant material for aromatherapeutic purposes (Catty, 2001). Although a true hydrosol should be specifically distilled for the hydrosol and not be a by-product. Typically a hydrosol holds the same properties as the essential oil of the plant but in a more subdued manner.
But hydrosols and essential oils are not the only ways to enjoy lavender’s benefits: infusing the flowers in a carrier oil like jojoba for a number of weeks yields a soothing and healing oil that can be used all over the body during the summertime (actually, all year long). I love to incorporate it as a base for all kinds of cosmetic formulations and I also turn the flowers into a powder and blend it with other botanicals for a purifying mask.
Probably one of the most important reasons to use the lavender plant is that it is a sustainable botanical, and this is not to be underestimated when we often hear about endangered animal and plant species. It is listed as a plant of “Least Concern” in view of its wide distribution, presumed large overall population, and lack of significant threats (IUCN, 2018).
In any case, we’ll keep you posted on how our lavender babies grow and develop over the course of the season!
- Rhind, J. P. (2016) - Aromatherapeutic Blending: Essential Oils in Synergy. London, UK: Singing Dragon
- Gladstar, R. (2012) – Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
- Tisserand, R. (1977) - The Art of Aromatherapy. Rochester, VT: Healing Art Press.
- Pengelly, A. (2004) - The Constituents of Medicinal Plants: An introduction to the Chemistry and therapeutics of herbal medicine. Oxon, UK: CABI Publishing.
- Rose, J. (1999) - 375 Essential Oils and Hydrosols. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
- Schnaubelt, K. (2011) - The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils. Rochester, VT: Healing Art Press.
- Carpenter, J. & Carpenter, M. (2015) - The Organic Medicinal Herb Farm. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
- Catty, S. (2001) – Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy. Rochester, VT: Healing Art Press.
- Mori, HM., Kawanami, H., Kawahata, H., & Aoki, M. (2016). Wound healing potential of lavender oil by acceleration of granulation and wound contraction through induction of TGF-ß in a rat model. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 16, 144. DOI: 10.1186/s12906-016-1128-7
- Giovannini D., Gismondi A., Basso A, Canuti L., Braglia R., Canini A., Mariani F., Cappelli G (2016). Lavandula angustifolia Mill. Essential Oil Exerts Antibacterial and Anti-Inflammatory Effect in Macrophage Mediated Immune Response to Staphylococcus aureus. Immunological investigations, 45(1): 11-28. DOI: 10.3109/08820139.2015.1085392
- Stewart, E. (2018) - The Lavender Issue. Aroma Culture, Herbalism and Aromatherapy Magazine. Volume 3, Issue 6 - June, 2018. [accessed 2018 july 04] https://www.aromaculture.com/shop/june2018
- Khela, S. (2013) - Lavandula angustifolia. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2013: e.T203244A2762550. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2013-2.RLTS.T203244A2762550.en.
- Traditional Medicinals: Lavender 101 - 2016. [accessed 2018 July 04] https://www.traditionalmedicinals.com/articles/lavender-101/
- PubMed Health: Essential Oils. [accessed 2018 July 04] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0025082/