The Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, is an anomaly in the Hebrew Bible, or any ancient religious canon, for that matter. It's Biblical smut, basically, a steamy celebration of sexual love, an erotic discourse between two romantic partners. Toward the end of the Song, there is a detailed prescription for the perfect garden, one which She passionately beseeches the winds of the north and the south to "blow on," so that "its fragrance may spread everywhere."
And in this sexy garden, you will find henna and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, myrrh and aloe, every kind of incense tree, and all the finest spices. And nard. Quite a bit of nard. These people really, really loved nard, the common name for nardus, the name given by the Ancient Greeks to a flowering plant sold frequently in the Syrian city of Naarda — the flowering plant we now know as lavender.
Fast forward a few thousand years, give or take, and lavender is everywhere: in aromatherapy, in cleaning supplies, in medicine cabinets, in your store-bought Herbs de Provence, in fragrant sachets you can stash in your underwear drawer, and, perhaps most of all, in beauty products. Lavender is the skin-care industry's undisputed favourite essential oil, a (supposedly) miraculous panacea touted for its (supposed) antiseptic, antibacterial, acne-fighting, skin-soothing, stress-reducing benefits. But there is reason to believe that its status as nature's greatest cure-all has been vastly overstated, to the point that the beauty world's obsession with its topical use — particularly when it's of unclear quality or concentration — could be causing some consumers more harm than good.
What can't be overstated is just how popular lavender essential oil really is, and how many ways in which it can be used. There are hundreds of articles posted online from the US National Library of Medicine documenting studies of Lavandula angustifolia and its derivatives as a potential treatment for everything from agitated behaviour in dementia patients to restless leg syndrome. And all of the doctors that I spoke to agreed that lavender oil is "generally" beneficial for "most" people as an ingredient in skin care, provided it's properly diluted and plays well with the rest of the formulation — a somewhat frustrating conclusion for me, a person who sees lavender not as a necessity for a sweet Biblical garden but one of my skin's worst allergy triggers.
As it happens, lavender essential oil, even in its most watered-down form, is a common allergen. "Lavender contains geraniol, linalool, and linalyl acetate," Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist and immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network, tells me. "All three are known contact allergens, meaning they cause rashes that look like eczema or poison ivy." For most skin types, a couple of allergens here and there are nothing to call your dermatologist about, but, as Dr. Parikh says, people allergic to other contact allergens are at a significantly higher risk of developing adverse reactions to lavender oil.
Dermatologist Heidi Waldorf, MD, of Waldorf Dermatology Aesthetics, says the same. "Lavender oil is used in skin care because of its anti-inflammatory or calming skin properties," she tells me, "but physical contact can cause an allergic reaction in a susceptible person." So if you have sensitive skin — say, if cheap jewellery gives you itchy blisters and certain detergents make you break out in hives — you might want to start checking that ingredient list a little more closely, even if all the "green" beauty enthusiasts whose geode collections you envy swear up and down that a homemade blend of essential oils applied by the light of the full moon cured their hormonal cystic acne.
But if a little rash isn't enough to turn you off the stuff, newer research suggests that there might be a much scarier, much more serious side effect: Lavender essential oil, along with tea tree, are now believed to be endocrine-disrupting chemicals after a study found that regular exposure to the common ingredients — in personal hygiene and household cleaning products — is linked to abnormal breast growth in young boys. According to researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a growing number of prepubertal gynecomastia cases have been reported to "coincide" with topical exposure, only for the condition to go away once they stop using products containing the oils.
So, with some damning arguments against it, what keeps bringing people back to lavender century after century? Their noses, that's what. The spa-like scent is scientifically proven to alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety, even slowing the reaction times and working memory of stressed-out individuals. And, in a world where each news report is more panic-inducing than the last, lavender's unparalleled ability to soothe the mind without drugs is something to be reckoned with. Curiously, nowhere in the Song of Songs does it specify whether its subjects had any contact dermatitis or abnormal breast growth.