There are many plants in the lavender family, but the type most commonly used medicinally is English lavender.
Traditionally, the essential oil of lavender was applied externally to treat joint pain, muscle aches, and a variety of skin conditions, including insect stings, acne, eczema, and burns. Lavender essential oil was also inhaled to relieve headaches, anxiety, and stress. Tincture of lavender was taken by mouth for joint pain, depression, migraines, indigestion, and anxiety.
Lavender was additionally used as a hair rinse and as a fragrance in “dream pillows” and potpourris.
Lavender continues to be recommended for all its traditional uses. Only a few of these uses, however, have any supporting scientific evidence whatsoever, and for none of these is the evidence strong.
A few studies suggest that lavender oil, when taken by inhalation ( aromatherapy) might reduce agitation in people with severe dementia. For example, in one very well-designed but very small study, a hospital ward was suffused with either lavender oil or water for two hours.1 An investigator who was unaware of the study’s design and who wore a device to block inhalation of odors entered the ward and evaluated the behavior of the 15 residents, all of whom had dementia. The results indicated that use of lavender oil aromatherapy modestly decreased agitated behavior. A somewhat less rigorous study reported similar benefits.2 Rigor is essential in such studies, as it has been shown that merely creating expectations about the effects of aromas may be sufficient to cause them to occur.9
A preliminary controlled trial found some evidence that lavender, administered through the oxygen face mask, reduced need for pain medications following gastric banding surgery.10
A small study performed in Iran reported that oral use of lavender tincture augmented the effectiveness of a pharmaceutical treatment for depression.3 However, this study suffered from numerous problems, both in design and reporting, as well as in the scientific reputation of the investigators involved.
Lavender oil was effective with reducing episiotomy pain. In two randomized trials involving 120 women with normal spontaneous vaginal birth, lavender essential oil applied via sitz bath twice daily for 10 post-partum days reduced episiotomy pain. Pain was absent in 42% of women compared to 28% of women having usual care. Similarly, another randomized trial with 60 women showed improvement in episiotomy pain with the use of lavender essential oil compared to usual care at 4 hours and 5 days post-partum.12-13
Head lice is a common condition in children. It is often treated with insecticides, like pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide, that are applied to the scalp. Lavender oil has been studied as a possible alternative.11 In one trial, 123 children (aged 4-12 years) were randomized to one of three groups: tea tree oil plus lavender oil, a head lice product that works by suffocating the lice, or insecticides (pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide). The day after being treated, almost all of the children in the tea tree plus lavender oil group, as well as the suffocation product group, were lice-free, compared to only 25% of those in the insecticides group (a significant difference).
Lavender is also used in combination with other essential oils. For information on these uses, see the Aromatherapy article.
When used internally, lavender tincture is taken at a dose of 2-4 ml three times a day. Lavender essential oil is only used externally or by inhalation; it should not be used internally.
No form of lavender has undergone comprehensive safety testing.
Internal use of lavender essential oil is unsafe and should be avoided. Topical use is considered much safer. Allergic reactions are relatively common, as with all essential oils. In addition, one case report suggests that a combination of lavender oil and tea tree oil applied topically caused gynecomastia (breast enlargement) in 3 young boys.7
A controlled study found that inhalation of lavender essential oil might impair some aspects of mental function.8 (Presumably, this was due to the intended sedative effects of the treatment.)
Oral use of tincture of lavender has not been associated with any severe adverse effects, but comprehensive safety testing has not been performed.
The maximum safe doses of any form of lavender remains unknown for pregnant or nursing women, young children, or people with severe liver or kidney.
1. Holmes C, Hopkins V, Hensford C, et al. Lavender oil as a treatment for agitated behaviour in severe dementia: a placebo controlled study. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2002;17:305-308.
2. Lin PW, Chan WC, Ng BF, et al. Efficacy of aromatherapy (lavandula angustifolia) as an intervention for agitated behaviours in Chinese older persons with dementia: a cross-over randomized trial. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2007 Mar 7. [Epub ahead of print]
3. Akhondzadeh S, Kashani L, Fotouhi A, et al. Comparison of Lavandula angustifolia Mill. tincture and imipramine in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a double-blind, randomized trial. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2003;27:123-127.
4. Dale A, Cornwell S. The role of lavender oil in relieving perineal discomfort following childbirth: a blind randomized clinical trial. J Adv Nurs. 1994;19:89-96.
5. Lewith GT, Godfrey AD, Prescott P, et al. A single-blinded, randomized pilot study evaluating the aroma of lavandula augustifolia as a treatment for mild insomnia. J Altern Complement Med. 2005;11:631-637.
6. Lusby PE, Coombes AL, Wilkinson JM. A comparison of wound healing following treatment with Lavandula x allardii honey or essential oil. Phytother Res. 2006 Jun 28. [Epub ahead of print]
7. Henley DV, Lipson N, Korach KS, Bloch CA. Prepubertal gynecomastia linked to lavender and tea tree oils. N Engl J Med. 2007;356:479-485.
8. Moss M, Cook J, Wesnes K et al. Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults. Int J Neurosci. 2003;113:15-38.
9. Howard S, Hughes BM. Expectancies, not aroma, explain impact of lavender aromatherapy on psychophysiological indices of relaxation in young healthy women. Br J Health Psychol. 2007 Sep 7. [Epub ahead of print]
10. Kim JT, Ren CJ, Fielding GA, et al. Treatment with lavender aromatherapy in the post-anesthesia care unit reduces opioid requirements of morbidly obese patients undergoing laparoscopic adjustable gastric banding. Obes Surg. 2007;17:920-925.
11. Barker SC, Altman PM. A randomised, assessor blind, parallel group comparative efficacy trial of three products for the treatment of head lice in children—melaleuca oil and lavender oil, pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide, and a "suffocation" product. BMC Dermatol. 2010;10:6.
12. Vakilian K, Atarha M, Bekhradi R. Healing advantages of lavender essential oil during episiotomy recovery: a clinical trial. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2011;17(1):50-53.
13. Sheikhan F, Jahdi F, Khoei EM. Episiotomy pain relief: Use of lavender oil essence in primiparous Iranian women. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2012;18(1):66-70.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board Last Updated: 12/15/2015