Some aromatherapists have very aptly described Lavender as "the virtual Swiss army knife of essential oils". Lavender is the most widely used and the most versatile essential oil.

It is from the plant family of lamiaceae or labiatae. An evergreen shrub with a height and spread of 3-4 feet (1 m), with woody branches and long narrow leaves, lavender has bluish-mauve or purple-blue flowers on long spikes at the end of thin stems. The flowers and stalks of the plant are dried and steam-distilled. The essential oil is clear to pale yellow in colour, with a sweet, floral-herbaceous aroma.

Lavender derives its name from "lavare", meaning to wash, probably from its use in cleaning wounds. It was also used by the Romans in their baths. Both the Greeks and the Romans burned lavender twigs as a room purifier to ward off the plague. Lavender has been in use continuously for thousands of years, either in the form with lavender water of essential oil or dried flowers. It has long been recommended as a folk remedy for insomnia, for example in herbal pillows. In the 1800's the Yardley company in England, realizing the healing properties of lavender, began adding it to their soaps and perfumes.

Lavender is a native of the Mediterranean. Since its introduction by the Romans to Britain and European countries, it has been flourishing all over Europe. Provence, in France, is famous for its lavender fields and the best lavender is from its mountain areas. The finest quality of lavender grows at altitudes between 700 and 1,400 metres. It is also grown in Bulgaria, Spain and the former Yugoslavia.

There are different species of lavender such as Lavandula Latifolia or Spika (Spike Lavender),Lavandula Officinalis, Lavandula Angustifolia, and Lavandula Vera. The "common"lavender, or Lavandula Officinalis, which is more powerful medicinally is botanically synonymous to Lavandula Angustifolia and Lavandula Vera which means "true lavender". This variety of lavender is the one whose sweet aroma we associate with lavender water and the bags used to perfume clothes and linen and keep moths at bay, whereas the spike lavender has a more camphorous smell. The Lavandula Officinalis yields the finest oil while the Lavandula Spica yields more oil with less sedative properties.

The versatility of lavender and its multiplicity of uses may make this oil sound too good to be true but one has to relate that to the chemically complex structure of the oil and its numerous active constituents. These include the ethers of linalyl and geranyl, geraniol, linalol, cineol, d-borneol, limonene, l-pinene, caryophyllene, the esters of bulyric acid and valerianic acid and coumarin. For example, its high ester content gives it a natural calming effect on the nervous system and renders it especially useful in relieving muscle spasms, while its high concentration of linalol makes it very antiseptic and useful for infections. The proportion of the various constituents vary from place to place according to the soil and conditions in which the plants were grown and from year to year according to the weather conditions. For example, after a dry hot summer, the oil will have a higher proportion of esters than after a dull one. This may alter the aroma but it does not make any significant change in the therapeutic properties.

The manifold properties of lavender are: analgesic, antiseptic, anti-depressant, antispasmodic, antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anti-convulsive, anti-rheumatic, antitoxic, carminative, cicatrisant, cardiotonic, cordial, choleretic or cholagogue, cytophylactic, decongestant, deodorant, diuretic, emmenagogue, fungicidal, hypotensive, insect repellent, nervine , parasiticidal, rubefacient, sedative, sudorific, tonic, vermifuge and vulnerary. The main effects of lavender are calming, soothing, balancing and normalizing. Lavender can be used to restore states of mental and physical imbalances to a state of balance in which healing can take place.

The four main areas in which lavender can be very useful are burns and other skin problems, virus infections like colds, coughs and flu, muscular aches and pains, and headaches. Due to its antiseptic, analgesic, and antibiotic properties, lavender is excellent for the treatment of burns and all kinds of injuries. It also promotes rapid healing and helps to prevent scarring. These remarkable healing properties of lavender were accidentally discovered by French chemist, Dr. Rene Maurice Gattefosse when he burnt his hand in a laboratory experiment. He instantly plunged it into a nearby bowl of liquid which happened to be pure lavender oil. The pain relief, swift healing and no scarring led him to research essential oils in greater depth and eventually coin the word "aromatherapie". Also, inspired by Gattefosse, Dr. Jean Valnet, French army surgeon, used lavender oil to treat serious burns and war injuries during the Second World War.

Because of its cytophylactic or cell regenerating properties, lavender is a good choice in treating eczema. It is also worth noting that it is quite possible that its soothing and anti-depressing action has an effect on the emotional factors which are often the underlying cause of the physical manifestation of eczema.

Lavender is usually recommended in cases of acne as it regulates sebaceous glands. Being antiseptic, it inhibits bacteria which cause skin infection; soothes the skin; helps to balance the over-secretion of sebum on which the bacteria thrive; and also reduces the possibility of scarring. In cases of acne, lavender can be sometimes applied undiluted directly on the pimples or a combination of lavender and bergamot may work better.

The soothing, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties of lavender make it valuable for many skin conditions. Diluted in a carrier oil, it can be topically applied to relieve skin rashes. Combined with aloe vera, it can take the sting out of a painful sunburn. A few drops of lavender in a warm bath may be a beneficial treatment for cellulite. Cool compresses of lavender can be useful for treating bruises. Massaging lavender diluted in a carrier oil can help rejuvenate aging skin ,and massaging it in gentle circular motions into the abdomen may help to prevent stretch marks during and after pregnancy or extreme weight loss. The delicate perfume of lavender makes it ideal for blending in creams, lotions and skin tonics. The astringent qualities of lavender water may calm overactive and oily skin conditions, tone and tighten the skin. Regular use of these hydrolats on the face can be effective in eliminating or reducing redness and blotchiness. Two drops of lavender combined with a couple of drops of bergamot added to pure spring water make a good floral water for greasy skin. Spritzing with hydrolats during a long flight or road trip helps to keep the skin moisturized.

The antiseptic, analgesic and antibiotic properties of lavender also make it a valuable treatment for colds, coughs, catarrh and sinusitis, as well as the flu. Steam inhalation is extremely effective in those cases. A little oil of lavender can be massaged into the throat to relieve a tickly cough. While the sedative action calms the tickle, the warmth of the body releases some of the volatile oil to be inhaled, and thus to work directly on the cause of the cough as well as the infection of the respiratory tract. A drop or two massaged along the bony ridges of the eyebrows and on either side of the nostrils acts as a decongestant and helps to clear catarrh.

One of the most important uses of lavender is to alleviate muscular pain. Diluted lavender massaged into the affected area will also relieve muscle spasm. A lavender bath can bring enormous relief to muscular pain arising from exercise or tension, or even to a low back pain that is muscular in origin. The same method can be used to ease the pain of rheumatism, sciatica or arthritis due to lavender's multiple action in reducing pain locally, lowering the reaction to pain in the central nervous system, reducing inflammation and toning the system generally. The action of lavender on the muscle of the heart is both tonic and sedative and therefore makes it valuable for the treatment of palpitations or high blood pressure.

Lavender gently massaged into the temples will soothe many types of headaches. Combined with chamomille or clary sage, it can also be applied to the forehead, neck and back of the head to calm migraine pain and discomfort.

On the psychological level, the actions of lavender are no less effective than on the physical level. Because of its primarily balancing nature, it is a good choice in helping those with hysteria, manic depression or mood swings. Its sedative and tonic effects restore equilibrium and promote stability. Lavender can be massaged on either side of the spine in such situations. Lavender baths can also be very helpful between visits to the aromatherapist and as a means of self-help. They can provide comfort and relief after any stressful experience and are extremely useful for anyone in a state of anxiety. Either in a bath or diffused with neroli or rose, lavender is the ideal choice when someone is suffering from insomnia, whether the causes are due to physical discomfort, or emotional stress. Even though a bath is the best solution in the case of insomnia, a few drops of lavender on the pillow will help to induce sleep. Lavender is also effective in cases of asthenia and a warm towel wrap will soothe nervous exhaustion.

Many of the minor ailments of young children, such as colic, irritability and infections, can be treated with lavender as long as low dilutions are used. The essential oil should be mixed in a carrier oil because if little children, especially babies, rub it in their eyes, it could cause irritation or damage the cornea.

Lavender is very efficacious for menstrual pain and being emmenagoguic, it is of great help for scanty menstruation. It can either gently massaged on the lower abdomen or used in a hot compress. For leucorrhea, a low concentration of 0.5 % to 1 % in boiled and cooled water can be used as a vaginal douche. During labour, lavender will both reduce pain and strengthen contractions, thus speeding labour if massaged in the lower back. It can also be used as a compress or massaged gently into the abdomen to help with the expulsion of afterbirth.

A drop of undiluted lavender can help with insect bites or bee stings as that will take the sting out and stop the irritation and infection from penetrating the punctured area. It can also be utilised for keeping animals free from fleas and for treating infestations of head- lice.

Amongst the many other uses of lavender, its efficacity has been noticed in the treatment of fungal infections such as athlete's foot and ringworm. It can be massaged into the legs to increase circulation and help reduce swelling or prevent the development of varicose veins. Several drops of lavender can be added to a mild shampoo to help control greasy hair. For bad breath add a drop of lavender to a cup of water and use as a mouthwash. A few drops in a sitzbath can be very effective for vaginitis or urinary tract infection. Diffused in sickrooms, its naturally antiseptic properties will prevent the spread of germs.

Lavender blends well with many other oils, particularly chamomille, clary sage, geranium, rose, ylang ylang, and the citrus essences such as bergamot and neroli, and also with its own plant family- the labiatae- such as marjoram and rosemary. Mixing lavender oil with another essential oil does not only enhance its action but also heightens the effects of any other oil it is combined with.

Very few people show any allergic reaction to lavender and those may include people with asthma, hay-fever sufferers or people with a family history of allergies. Chrissie Wildwood, in The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Aromatherapy, points out that though lavender is regarded as non-irritant and non-sensitising, contact dermatitis has been reported as a result of overuse of the oil, especially amongst aromatherapists themselves. She also mentions that a possible explanation is that sensitivity to one particular brand of lavender and not to another, even though both types may be labelled "Lavandula Officinalis", may be because the oil has been adulterated or oxidised. Other aromatherapists have described lavender as a safe oil as long as it is used correctly and at recommended dosages.

Lavender, or any other essential oil that is used for therapeutic purposes, should be purchased from a reputable company in order to ensure the quality of the oil and avoid the risk of getting adulterated oil. Lavandin, which is a hybrid of two species of lavender, is much easier to produce and not nearly as useful as lavender. Sometimes it is sold under the name of lavender, so caution is well-advised.

For centuries, Lavender has been popular for its sweet- floral aroma, its insecticidal properties, and its healing and rejuvenating effects on the skin. It is certainly a highly recommended oil in a first aid kit, a great aid for insomnia, a very effective treatment for muscular aches and pains, and a good analgesic for headaches. This is by no means an exhaustive list of its uses and beneficial effects as the reading above has shown. In a nutshell, lavender is physically and emotionally soothing, calming, balancing and normalizing. Unlike rose or jasmine, which are very expensive, lavender is affordable and is also widely available. Endowed with so many therapeutic properties, lavender's versatility is incomparable. Lavender should be included in any aromatherapy collection. Lavender can be described as a multi-purpose oil - having a bottle of the essential oil of lavender is like having a little cabinetful of remedies at your fingertips.

Rani Johnson

1) Aromatherapy, an A-Z---- Patricia Davis.
2) Practical Aromatherapy ----Shirley Price.
3) A-Z Guide to Healing With Essential Oils ----Shelagh Ryan Masline & Barbara Close.
4) Aromatherapy for Scentual Awareness ----Karen Downes & Judith White.
5) The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Aromatherapy ---Chrissie Wood.
6) The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy ---Vivian Lunny.
7) Aromatherapy-Massaging With Essential Oils ---Clare Maxwell- Hudson.
8) Lessons From The Centre of International Holistic Studies.