The story goes that in 1910, a chemist called René-Maurice Gattefossé was experimenting with perfumes, when a sudden gas explosion badly burned his hands. In a manic attempt to control the rapidly spreading infection, he plunged his hands into a vat of lavender oil sitting in his laboratory, purely by chance.
Gattefossé was amazed as the burn subsided within hours, with a fraction of the scars he expected. From that day forth, he made it his mission to uncover the medicinal properties of lavender oil, experimenting constantly on injured world war one soldiers in military hospitals.
This story isn’t 100% true, as Gattefossé knew about the medicinal properties beforehand, and didn’t randomly have a giant, unlidded vat of lavender oil bubbling away in his lab either. However, deliberately using lavender oil did save his hands from what he described as a “a rapidly developing gas gangrene“.
Now lavender oil is recommended for acne as well, and in reality, it does sit in the upper echelon of essential oils…
…but the problem is that it’s drowning in controversy. According to some, applying lavender oil to your face is a terrible idea in any circumstances, no matter how many powers for acne it has.
The fearmongering – don’t be fooled!
The fear is mainly down to two natural components called linalool and linalyl acetate, which make up approximately 30% of lavender oil each (with some natural variation). These are the main active medicinal components of lavender oil, just like terpinol-4-ol in tea tree oil or rosmarinic acid in rosemary extract. Popular wisdom states that thanks to linalool and linalyl acetate, lavender oil is…
ONE: cytotoxic to human skin cells.
TWO: photosensitising, decreasing your skin cells’ resistance to UV radiation.
THREE: reddening and irritating.
These rumours have planted the seeds of doubt in acne patients’ minds, but most are false.
Cytotoxicity refers to skin cell death, not something an acne patient should aspire towards. Lavender oil was shown in one much feared study on isolated cells to have cytotoxic properties at concentrations of 0.125%, by damaging the cell membrane. Linalool had equal cytotoxic properties to lavender oil itself, while linalyl acetate was even more cytotoxic.
However, it appears that being performed on isolated skin cells made a huge negative difference, because lavender oil was once tested at full concentration on 50 living patients, and no damage to cells was detected. Another experiment used the standard essential oil concentration of 1% on human skin, on eczema patients, with no damage occurring once again.
Some believe that an irritating compound called camphor is a threat, but levels in lavender oils are 0.1-1%. The true fact mutated into something completely different.
Meanwhile, only one case of lavender oil-induced photo-toxicity has ever been reported in studies. In fact, one study found that lavender oil was able to inhibit sun damage, by preventing the formation of singlet oxygen free radicals, one of the classic free radicals generated by sunlight. The benefit isn’t enough to clear acne, but it’s enough to completely vanquish the fears. Citrus essential oils are a much bigger photosensitising threat.
One of the few negative studies was this 2014 one on linalool, in addition to limonene, found in citrus oils. 4731 UK dermatology patients were enrolled. The goal was to test oxidised essential oil compounds, and 5.9% experienced irritation from oxidised linlalool while 5.0% experienced irritation from oxidised limonene. 97% of reactions occurred with the oxidised linalool and limonene and 3% from the intact versions.
The only danger is therefore when lavender oil is damaged, and even if the linalool does oxidise, you only have a 5% chance of disaster. It’s a risk to be aware of, but a reason to dismiss the whole product? Definitely not.
At best, you should restrict lavender oil to a short term treatment, avoiding oxidants like intense sunlight and make-up while you wear it. You don’t have to huddle in a dark cavern but applying lavender oil in the morning and lying on a beach all day is probably not smart. Applying benzoyl peroxide on top of lavender oil would be a nightmare, since BP works through generating free radicals.
Another question, however, is whether linalool oxides easily in the first place, given that lavender petals are rich in natural antioxidants. The scientists deliberately applied highly oxidised linalool; how often would that happen in real life? Overall, the irritating risks exist, but have taken on a life of their own over the years.
Is lavender oil an estrogen mimic?
The second scare story orbiting lavender oil is that it’s so estrogenic that applying it will give you man-boobs, or completely disrupt your hormones if you’re female. The origin was this 2007 study on three pre-teenage boys with gynocomastia, AKA man-boobs, caused by excessive estrogen. Two of the subjects were using a soap containing lavender oil, while the third used a soap containing both lavender oil and tea tree oil.
Once usage of the products was discontinued, the gynocomastia resolved, leading the scientists to brand lavender oil as a endocrine (hormone) disruptor. Tea tree oil suffered the same fate…
…but the study has several flaws. Firstly, the sample size was tiny. Secondly, each soap contained the chemical dimethyl sulfoxide to dilute the ingredients – which is a confirmed xenoestrogen, or estrogen mimicker.
The study already means nothing, and lavender oil was completely restored by this study which used far higher doses of 4% and 20%. Lavender oil was applied topically to rat skin, and no estrogenic effect was observed at either dosage.
4% is the standard essential oil dosage, but some positive acne studies which we will be discussing soon used concentrations as low as 0.1%. Effectively, 40 to 200 times more lavender oil than is needed had no effect on estrogen. The doses of lavender oil were thousands of times higher than the soaps the three boys used.
This is the final nail in the coffin for the notorious study. How could lavender oil be blamed if massively higher doses had no effect? Clearly it was a complete misunderstanding; it must have been the dimethyl sulfoxide. Lavender oil does not 1) contain estrogen, 2) mimic estrogen, 3) stimulate estrogen receptors, or 4) interfere with estrogen metabolism, with anything other than extremely weak strength.
Most of the fears about lavender oil are unfounded. We now have one more viable natural topical treatment to use…
Why it’s great for acne – the first power
…and according to the raw evidence, lavender oil is one of the better essential oils for acne with ease.
Tea tree oil has the speciality of killing p.acnes bacteria, as does rosemary extract. Rose water is excellent at lowering inflammation. Juniper berry oil is excellent at nothing at all. Lavender oil, meanwhile, is an above average anti-inflammatory essential oil, as you can see from this study analysing the ability of ten essential oils to reduce neutrophils. Neutrophils are a specific pro-inflammatory immune agent which churns out free radicals, theoretically to break down old skin, but often breaking down living flesh.
Lavender oil ranked 7th, equal to tea tree oil, better than eucalyptus oil, but inferior to peppermint oil and the winner, lemongrass oil. However it was still extremely effective. Only peppermint, lemongrass and geranium oil were able to reduce neutrophils at 0.0125% concentrations, while lavender oil required a 0.1% concentration. The standard topical concentration for an essential oil is 4%, so only a nitpicker would be disappointed.
Lowering neutrophil accumulation is excellent for acne. For example, increasing neutrophil production is why the bipolar disorder medication lithium causes acne.
This second study on neutrophils produced a near identical result: lavender oil inhibited neutrophils fairly well, though not amazingly. Geranium oil was the best of this 5-strong selection, but lavender oil ranked in 2nd, beating tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil and demolishing juniper berry oil (the only oil to achieve nothing). This time, linalool was not responsible for the decrease, whereas in the first study linalool reduced neutrophils slightly.
The conclusion: “cutaneous application of several essential oils, especially geranium oil, to mice suppressed the cellular inflammation… this suggests that essential oils using in aromatherapy massage may suppresses the inflammatory symptoms related with neutrophil accumulation and edema“.
This conclusion is excellent. The redness and swelling which you witness in the mirror is nothing but cellular inflammation. The disease of acne is caused by cellular inflammation at its core.
Some studies on wider inflammation were also promising; this one observed a reduction in the pro-inflammatory allergy response chemical histamine. In this study lavender oil reduced inflammatory swelling when applied topically.
Lavender oil isn’t the greatest essential oil for inflammation, but it’s a very good one.
The second gimmick
What makes lavender oil really promising, however, is its ability to accelerate wound healing. Moderately deep wounds were created on rats in this study. In the lavender oil group, wound closure accelerated, while total wound area was lower. Both type 1 and type 3 collagen levels increased by lavender oil day 4, with the increase persisting to day 7 for type 1.
Structural components called myofibroblasts were also increased in the lavender oil group. Both factors were triggered by an upregulation of a protein called transforming growth factor-beta, which controls collagen synthesis among other wound healing processes.
Since pimples heal like any wound once the first burst of inflammation subsides (particularly if you can’t resist the urge to hack away at them), the results are excellent for acne. Lavender oil probably won’t work for long term acne scars. The benefits peaked at 4 days of healing, with the wounds being smaller at 4 to 10 days, but no different after 14 days. What lavender oil will do is heal existing acne extra quickly.
Interestingly, wound healing is an unusual power for an essential oil. Essential oils are reliable for antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Carrier oils (grapeseed oil, emu oil) dabble with vitamin E and moisturising properties, while for diet, fruits almost always contain vitamin C and antioxidants. But there’s always secrets to be discovered in each category, and this is one of them.
It wouldn’t be surprising to hear that a shady, smoke-filled gathering of juniper berry oil dealers decided to wage war on lavender oil many years ago.
The horror stories are blown out of proportion. The rumours spread via word of mouth on the internet as well, rather than via deliberate propaganda. One person mentions the estrogen story, a regular user of lavender oil gets worried and asks some panicked questions, other acne patients stumble across the conversation, and before you know it, it’s common knowledge that lavender oil is estrogenic.
Luckily, you now know the truth. If you had sensitive skin, and applied lavender oil daily at full concentration for several weeks, then you might wake up to some irritation, but the risk is unspectacular: you have to keep a tight leash on all essential oils. Lavender oil is in the upper tier of essential oils for acne.
A recipe for wound healing acceleration
If your acne is taking forever to heal, leaving you with a freshly cooked Italian pizza of a face even while the conveyor belt of new acne is slow, here’s one possible all-out strategy:
Use lavender oil – it specialises in short term wound healing, but to keep all your new acne healing, you have to use lavender oil daily. Therefore, use a small concentration each day, diluted sufficiently to prevent irritation but concentrated enough to succeed. To use lavender oil you should…
Combine it with tamanu oil – tamanu oil is another topical treatment which is proven to accelerate wound healing. This study found that tamanu oil increased collagen levels 1.4 fold after 24 hours, and up to 1.23 fold after 4 hours.
Lavender oil is an essential oil, a distillation of the plants petals, while tamanu oil is a fatty oil derived from the tamanu nut. Therefore, tamanu oil is the perfect carrier oil to ensure proper penetration of lavender oil into the skin’s layers, since it piles on its own wound healing properties at the same time.
Use aloe vera in the morning – you should perform this ritual before bed. Tamanu oil will make your face greasy while to be safe, lavender oil should not be combined with make-up, overly harsh sunlight, and air pollution, all of which you are free from during sleep. In the morning, you can apply aloe vera to selected areas of slowly healing pimples.
Aloe vera is another secret wound healing weapon, featuring two plant growth hormones called glucomannan and giberellin which stimulate collagen production. Use a small amount of oil on each area to enhance the penetration; it can be tamanu oil once more or perhaps shea butter, which increases collagen by inhibiting collagenase enzymes.
With this topical strategy it is hard to fail.
Thanks for reading!