Lavender Oil and Negative Innuendo

In a recent blog post an Environmental Working Group (EWG) research assistant suggests that lavender oil may be unsafe, saying: “the science is still evolving and safety can’t be assumed.” The science is still evolving? Isn’t that true of anything? Are we just sowing the seeds of doubt here?

I have written a number of posts about the EWG and sloppy science. Their modus operandi involves highlighting negative information, along with liberal use of the phrase “has been linked to”. Factual information is so often distorted that their reputation in scientific circles is all but worthless. I have never read an EWG report in which both sides of an argument are presented. The problem I have with this approach is that the EWG audience is consumers, who have neither the scientific training nor the knowledge and expertise to challenge what is being said. In spite of this many do, because they instinctively feel that something is not right.

Skin allergy
Lavender oil “has been linked to” allergic reactions, it’s true. But how strong is that link? After all, if you look hard enough, you will find at least one allergic reaction report for almost every substance used in cosmetics. Cherry picking a few negative studies is not a useful way to help consumers assess product safety. What we need is a comparative rating that clearly flags high-risk ingredients, along with practical safety guidelines.

“Allergy epidemics” have occurred in the past, most often with preservatives. As use becomes more extensive, adverse reactions escalate, and eventually the substance is either banned or restricted. In spite of widespread use, this is not happening with lavender, which has been the most popular essential oil for aromatherapy use since the 1970s.

The EWG post is written by Swati Sharma. She tells us that: “Despite its ubiquity in cosmetics, researchers in Japan who compared eight essential oils found that lavender caused the greatest number of skin allergies.” No it did not, unless you only look at two of the nine years of the study! The Japanese researchers tested six essential oils, one absolute and two essential oil constituents. The essential oil that produced the greatest number of adverse reactions was ylang-ylang (tested at 5%), followed by geranium (tested at 20%) followed by lavender (also tested at 20%). And since all the other substances were tested at either 5% or 2%, the relative risk of each cannot be compared anyway. The higher the test concentration, the greater will be the number of reactions. And, the Japanese subjects were all dermatology patients “suspected of cosmetic dermatitis”, an especially high-risk group.

Considering that the lavender oil was patch tested at 20% in a high-risk population, and that only 1.4% (21 of 1,483) of patients had an adverse reaction, this does not suggest a significant allergen. Other research points to lavender oil presenting a very low risk. When 50 healthy volunteers were patch tested with the undiluted oil, there were no reactions (Meneghini et al 1971). Similarly, none were produced in 25 volunteers tested with lavender at 10% (Opdyke 1976 p451). In a study of 200 dermatitis patients in Poland, none were sensitive to 2% lavender oil (Rudzki et al 1976). In a Danish study, two of 217 dermatitis patients (0.9%) tested positive to 2% lavender oil (Veien et al 2004). Tested at 1%, lavender oil produced no reactions in 273 dermatitis patients (Meneghini et al 1971).

Taken together, these results show that two of 690 dermatitis patients (0.3%) reacted to lavender oil when patch tested at 1% or 2%. However, extrapolating from patch test data on dermatology patients to the general population is notoriously difficult (especially since the conditions of patch testing exaggerate risk) and the actual number of people with adverse reactions to lavender is very much less than 0.3%. Over a 15 year period (1986-2000) there have only been five cases of lavender oil allergy reported worldwide (Brandão 1986, De Groot 1996, Keane et al 2000, Schaller & Korting 1995, Selvaag et al 1995) and three were people with multiple allergies. This is in contrast to millions of bottles of undiluted lavender oil being sold to consumers per annum, and millions more personal care products containing lavender oil.

From all of the above we can conclude that a 20% concentration of lavender oil might be risky for Japanese consumers with cosmetic allergies, but 2% is not a risk to anyone, and even undiluted lavender is safe to use on healthy skin. Not only is lavender a very low-risk skin allergen, it possesses anti-allergic properties. Topically applied, the oil inhibited immediate-type allergic reactions by inhibiting the release of histamine from mast cells (Kim et al 1999). How is this possible? Probably because in most cases, allergies only occur from the use of oxidized lavender oil. The unoxidized oil is anti-allergic, and is even moderately antioxidant (Wei and Shibamoto 2007).

Sharma tells us that linalyl acetate, a major constituent of lavender oil, can oxidize in the presence of atmospheric oxygen, “forming allergens that can cause contact dermatitis” (Sköld et al 2008). Indeed it can, as can linalool, the other major constituent of lavender oil (Sköld et al 2004). However, these are theoretical risks, not actual risks, and lavender oil oxidation is a process that takes many months, even years. What this research suggests is that products containing lavender oil should be protected from oxidation by the addition of antioxidants, and that very old products should be discarded. The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) does not have a regulation for lavender oil, but it does for linalool. Referring to linalool-rich essential oils, the IFRA guideline recommends the addition of an antioxidant: “The addition of 0.1% BHT or a-tocopherol has shown great efficiency” (IFRA 2009).

Next, Sharma informs us that “lavender oil may be toxic to human skin cells” though curiously no reference is given (it’s Prashar et al 2004). I addressed this issue in a previous post about lavender, in which I explain how we know that the oil is not a skin irritant, and is not toxic to skin cells when applied to human skin.

Hormone disruption
Finally, Sharma raises the question of lavender oil and hormone disruption, an issue I have also addressed previously, in this article. To sum up, there was no established link between lavender oil and breast growth in three pre-perbertal boys, but lavender oil did show a weak in vitro estrogenic action in two (of the four possible) types of in vitro test for estrogenic activity (Henley et al 2007). None of this establishes that lavender oil disrupts hormones. To quote Diel et al (1999): “…even a combined use of several in vitro test systems is not able to predict the occurring action of a substance in the organism.” In other research, lavender oil was significantly toxic to human breast cancer cells (Zu et al 2010) suggesting that it would prevent breast cancer, and not increase risk.

Summary points
Consumer products containing lavender oil may benefit from the addition of an antioxidant, such as alpha-tocopherol. This should be used at 0.1-0.2% (note that using more is not more effective).

Bottles of lavender oil, or products containing lavender oil, that are more than 12 months old (after first use) should be discarded if they no longer smell fresh.

There is a theoretical risk of skin allergy from lavender oil, but this risk is extremely low. Restricting the percentage of lavender oil in leave-on products (skin creams, lotions, gels) to 2% would be over-cautious, but combined with the addition of an antioxidant, will make a product super-safe.

Lavender oil has a weak in vitro estrogenic activity, but there is no reason to believe that this translates to a hormone-disrupting effect in humans.

Brandão FM 1986 Occupational allergy to lavender oil. Contact Dermatitis 15:249-250

De Groot AC 1996 Airborne allergic contact dermatitis from tea tree oil. Contact Dermatitis 35:304-305

Diel P, Smolnikar K, Michna H 1999 In vitro test systems for the evaluation of the estrogenic activity of natural products. Planta Medica 65:197-203

Keane FM, Smith HR, White IR et al 2000 Occupational allergic contact dermatitis in two aromatherapists. Contact Dermatitis 43:49-51

Henley DV, Lipson N, Korach KS et al 2007 Prebubertal gynecomastia linked to
lavender and tea tree oils. New England Journal of Medicine 365: 479-485

IFRA 2009 Standards, including amendments as of October 14th 2009. International Fragrance Association, Brussels.

Kim HM, Cho SH 1999 Lavender oil inhibits immediate-type allergic reaction in mice and rats. Journal of Pharmacy & Pharmacology 51:221-226

Meneghini CL, Rantuccio F, Lomuto M 1971 Additives, vehicles and active drugs of topical medicaments as causes of delayed-type allergic dermatitis. Dermatologica 143:137-147

Opdyke DL 1976 Monographs on fragrance raw materials. Food & Cosmetics Toxicology 14 supplement

Prashar A, Locke IC, Evans CS 2004 Cytotoxicity of lavender oil and its major components to human skin cells. Cell Proliferation 37:221-229

Rudzki E, Grzywa Z, Brud WS 1976 Sensitivity to 35 essential oils. Contact Dermatitis 2:196-200

Schaller M, Korting HC 1995 Allergic airborne contact dermatitis from essential oils used in aromatherapy. Clinical & Experimental Dermatology 20:143-145

Selvaag E, Holm JO, Thune P 1995 Allergic contact dermatitis in an aromatherapist with multiple sensitizations to essential oils. Contact Dermatitis 33:354-355

Sköld M, Börje A, Harambasic E et al 2004 Contact allergens formed on air exposure of linalool. Identification and quantification of primary and secondary oxidation products and the effect on skin sensitization. Chemical Research in Toxicology 17:1697-1705

Sköld M, Hagvall L, Karlberg AT et al 2008 Autoxidation of linalyl acetate, the main component of lavender oil, creates potent contact allergens. Contact Dermatitis 58:9-14

Sugiura M, Hayakawa R, Kato Y et al 2000 Results of patch testing with lavender oil in Japan. Contact Dermatitis 43:157-160

Veien NK, Rosner K, Skovgaard GL 2004 Is tea tree oil an important contact allergen? Contact Dermatitis 50:378-379

Wei A, Shibamoto T 2007 Antioxidant activities and volatile constituents of various essential oils. Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry 55:1737-1742

Zu Y, Yu H, Liang L et al 2010 Activities of ten essential oils towards Propionibacterium acnes and PC-3, A-549 and MCF-7 cancer cells. Molecules 15:3200-3210



  • Anonymous

    So now the naturals industry is under fire or is it just the perfume industry?

  • Dene62

    I suggest the EWG researcher looks up the definition of “ubiquity” – lavender oil is by no stretch of the imagination ubiquitous in cosmetics. A minor point, I know, but typical EWG sloppiness.

    I am tired of seeing dermatological data expressed in terms of % responses without any explanation of the context. A 5% response rate in dermatology patients probably translates into well below 0.5% of the general population. This is one of the most misused pieces of information in cosmetics. Dermatologists also often publish papers based on only1 or 2 adverse reactions to a substance – this also distorts the context of skin irritation and sensitisation reports.

  • Isis Fate2

    I personally do not trust really anything on the EWG site. It really annoys me because whatever is put on there proliferates onto other websites where owners have little or no science background. Others, also with little or no science background will read this information and get scared and pass it onto another website! It will never cease! Erg!!!

    • Kristin Fraser Cotte

      I totally feel your frustration, but that’s why it’s important for the real “experts” with scientific background to point out the truth behind the current science. People want to hear the truth behind the current science; the hits received on this website has proved that!

  • Marilyn

    And for how many thousands of years have humans been using lavender without incident?

  • Stacy

    Hi! New reader here! I’m a pretty close follower of Paula Begoun, The Cosmetics Cop. From what I’ve read on this website thus far, you seem to be in line with her mission/life’s work of dispelling the rampant myths of the beauty/personal care product industry. She’s a source I trust when it comes to ingredients and products. The following link is what she has to say about lavender oil and I’m curious as to what you think. She always provides links to the journals and studies where she gets her information, though as a consumer I trust what she says without doing any further research. Guilty, but who really has time to do that every time when it’s not your job? :)

    • Lisa M. Rodgers

      Hey Stacy and welcome!

      Thanks so much for your comments. Paula does an excellent job in dispelling the cosmetic misinformation running wild on the internet and happens to be an expert on this site.

      We hope you’ll continue to visit Personal Care Truth and contribute to the dialogue. So glad you stopped by and look forward to hearing more from you!

      Have a great night!


      • Stacy

        Well look at that! Haha, I guess it was only a matter of time before I would’ve noticed she was an expert here!

  • cut the BS

    I notice Paula Begoun hasn’t written anything for this site. I guess she’s too busy writing her Wikipedia entry and promoting her skincare line that she formulated herself (ha!). Have you heard her radio show? It’s nothing but an infomercial for “her” line. I used to have  a little respect for this woman even when I disagreed with her but I lost that respect when she started selling private label cosmetics from Your Name Cosmetics. Then she discontinued those and brought out “her” line. She is such a BS part of the industry now. She’s just a salesperson with an arrogant attitude and too much plastic surgery.

    • Stacy

      cut the BS- I have listen to her show in the past, but haven’t recently. It makes sense to me that she would promote her products there. It’s her company after all, and she wants to make money just like the rest of us. I’m not sure why you sound so angry towards her. What skin care topics do you disagree with her on?

      Did you know Paula is one of the only, probably the only, person that promotes other skin lines besides her own? Check out BeautyPedia. I don’t know of any other company that sells products but also recommends checking out other brands.

      I think her products are some of the best out there, and she has research to back it up. I use a few of them and have had great results. I’m sure there are people who have not had a great experience with her products, and that’s fine. Every person’s skin is different. Have you tried them?

      • Dene Godfrey

        I agree, Stacy – and I fail to see the relevance of plastic surgery to the discussion!

        • Stacy

           Me too! I meant to mention that as well. Her personal choices about her appearance don’t really have anything to do with anything.

          • cut the BS

            This woman spreads fear about perfectly safe fragrance ingredients in the same way that EWG and others spread fear about parabens. And we all know that she didn’t formulate her own line of skin care. Come on. Cut the BS.

          • cut the BS

            Stacy and Dene,  you are right on one point. Her botched plastic surgery has nothing to do with anything. I’m sorry I mentioned it.

          • cut the BS

            Did you see her Dr Oz? Talk about fear mongering. She does the same as people who “do their own research”. She quotes from studies that support her selling points while ignoring studies that disagree with her. She is no better than EWG only she sells a product instead of asking for donations.

          • Katherine

            I actually saw that show about mineral makeup with her and a plastic surgeon I believe giving their opinions on the hazards of mineral makeup, and Paula doesn’t like it, so bias is present.  So I couldn’t agree with you more.  I would like someone to tell me what qualifies these two people to give an opinion on particle size vs hazard to lungs, and then explode the minerals all over the studio….Who loads a brush like that….really?  Plus their comments had no bearing on any actual science.  Also Dr. Oz went so far as to frighten women with the phrase that contained “women dying from mineral particles in the next 25 years.”   I found his comments reprehensible and inflammatory.  Fortunately, many women have seen past the BS as referenced on many forums and message boards.

            Bare Minerals CEO Leslie Blodgett came out publicly in a letter addressed to Dr. OZ. 

            “The safety and wellbeing of every customer is of paramount concern at
            Bare Escentuals. We would like to assure our customers that there is
            absolutely no credible scientific evidence that our mineral cosmetic
            products can be easily inhaled into the lungs, much less linking our
            mineral cosmetic products with negative health effects. Unsupported
            allegations that all mineral cosmetic products are “dangerous,” based on
            what unidentified “experts” have supposedly said, are unnecessarily
            alarming and fear-inducing because such allegations are simply not
            supported by any credible evidence. We stand behind our products and
            look forward to continuing to provide high quality products to the
            millions of women whose lives have been touched by bareMinerals. ”

            Leslie Blodgett
            CEO, Bare Escentuals”

          • Stacy

            Hi Katherine, I didn’t see that episode so I don’t know what was said on TV, but I do know that no where on Paula’s website does it states that she believes mineral makeup is dangerous or bad for you. She merely makes a points that it’s not a better type of makeup because it’s made from “minerals”. As for Dr. Oz, I wouldn’t give much warrant to anything he says either.

            Here’s the link:


    • Dene Godfrey

      Have I missed something here? Why has this turned into an attack on Paula Begoun? I can’t see any reference to her in this article . . .

      • Stacy

         I think it’s my fault. I brought her up in a comment below wondering what you guys had to say about her article regarding lavender oil. There’s a link to it. I was just curious and definitely not trying to instigate anything.

        • Dene Godfrey

          I’m not looking to “blame”, Stacy – I just wondered about the relevance and you’ve answered my question, thanks! It might have been better if the original comment about Paula had been written in direct response to your comment! :-)

          • Stacy

             Yes, it would have been better, but I don’t think they cared about what I was bringing up specifically. They just wanted to attack.

          • cut the BS

            The woman uses scare tactics to sell her cosmetics. She is no better than EWG. She has no place on this site. Actually, she’s not on this site as I don’t see anything written by her. She’s just listed as an “expert”. You asked what people thought of her and I replied. You brought her up and asked for opinions so don’t get upset when someone gives you one.

          • Dene Godfrey

            I can’t comment on what Paula does, or doesn’t do, because I have not seen anything she has written or broadcast, but she has posted an article on this site, albeit some time ago. Personally, I am not upset by you voicing your opinion, but you did post the comment out of context by not replying directly to Stacy, and your observations about plastic surgery were inappropriate, as you generously admitted.

  • KD

    Seems like lavender is toxic to the skin. And it’s not the only study conducted that has concluded that.

    • colin

      That paper is in the references to the blog post and the point it raises is discussed, quite adequately in my opinion. There is a cytotoxic component present at a low level in lavender oil that increases over time. This is a long way from suggesting it poses any risk to the skin in use.

  • Me

    having read all the comments people seem to forget that EVERYONE is different. Oils that may cause reactions in one person, may not cause reactions on another person. I personally do not believe everything these so called “learned experts” have to say (they can be wrong). Lavender oil and other essential oils have been use before THEY (scaremongers, scientists, researchers etc etc) were even born.

    Mineral make up….just a new fad, when people start having pimple break outs because their pores are clogged, that too will fade into oblivion.

    Who care about plastic surgery and who had what, when and where……I am sure there are better things to discuss than someone’s vanity.

    • Dene Godfrey

      If you don’t believe everything that “experts” say, I am curious to know on what basis (presumably as a “non-expert”) you decide what they have got right and what they have got wrong? Wouldn’t YOU need to be an “expert” to make a good decision? I am not suggesting that such experts are infallible, but surely it would require another expert to porve them wrong?