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A primer on lavender varieties, how it's used, how it becomes essential oil, how not to use it on skin, and why it shouldn't be used on children
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Lavender bed at the Weleda Biodynamic Garden in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany

Lavender bed at the Weleda Biodynamic Garden in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany

Hands up if you're more irritable these days. Or if you're stressed out. Or if you're losing sleep. Lavender is commonly touted as a remedy for such things, but most of us don't really know much about it. We spoke to some experts about lavender's benefits, best varieties, how it's used, and where caution is required.

"Besides having a scent that is pleasing to many people, lavender is used in aromatherapy to calm the mind and body," says Heather Halpern, Director of Research and Development at Kiss my Face. Said to soothe headaches and possess slight antibacterial and antiseptic properties, lavender is popular in products designed to encourage relaxation and sleep, such as Kiss My Face Anti-Stress Shower and Bath Gel, J.R. Watkins Calming Bath Soak, and Upper Canada's Freshly Cut Lavender Citron Linen Spray, which one might spritz on a pillow before bedtime.

lavender tea, cake, and essential oil

Although you can detect the scent of lavender blossoms from yards away, dried lavender is more concentrated in the same way dried herbs are stronger than fresh. Fragrant sachets for closets and dresser drawers are made with dried lavender, as is some potpourri. Dried lavender is appropriate for cooking; fresh serves as an interesting garnish for meat and fish. Alain Ménard, co-founder of the Green Beaver Company, likes tisane or tea made from dried lavender flowers. "It's light purple and very relaxing," he says. (For a lavender apple cake recipe, click here.)

Halpern notes lavender extract and floral-water blends work well in body care formulations and cosmetics. Often used in the beauty industry is the most intense form, lavender essential oil, which takes masses of raw materials and a distillation process to produce, and yields only a small amount of oil. Interestingly, says Ménard, who is a microbiologist, distilling just the lavender flower spikes results in an essential oil (essential here means "essence of") that also contains natural molecules of camphor and eucalyptus, which help to ease breathing.

lavender in cananada and further afield

Lavender grows easily in the US and Europe. According to Ménard, the softest scent comes from French lavender, the strain used by made-in-France lines such as L'Occitane en Provence and Le Couvents des Minimes. But in our climate, that strain can grow only in some regions of British Columbia or as an indoor potted plant. In the rest of Canada grows an Australian variation called lavendin, which Ménard explains is hardier, more resiliant, and resistant to cold. "It grows faster, is less expensive and has a sharper scent than French lavender," he says. And for product lines formulated in Canada, lavendin's widespread Canadian availability means a smaller enviro-footprint.

At present, Ménard uses BC's French lavender in Green Beaver's Volumizing Shampoo and Conditioner, Lavender Hand and Body Lotion and Lavender Sport 24 Deodorant. He intends to reduce the Québec-based company's footprint further by incorporating use of Québec-grown organic lavendin.

lavender on the body: caution required!

Anyone can use products with lavender in them, but Ménard cautions against using lavender essential oil directly on skin. "The skin can take something like straight olive oil because it's a pressed-seed oil, less complex than an essential oil," he explains. "Essential oil is highly concentrated and might cause irritation." 

Caution is also essential for kids: a 2007 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that topical application of lavender oil on very young children can mess with their estrogen levels, resulting in breast-like development in boys and accelerated development in girls. Happily, though, the symptoms reversed themselves once the applications stopped.

How much do you or did you already know about lavender? Have you ever baked or cooked with it? Does it help you sleep better? And did you know lavender essential oil could irritate skin?

Green Beaver is made in Canada; Upper Canada is Canadian, too. A version of this piece first appeared as "Ingredients 101: Lavender in Cosmetics Magazine (also Canadian). I took the above photo at Weleda's biodynamic garden just outside Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany.