So much has been written about the amazing properties of lavender oil – its ability to calm the nerves, aid relaxation, help give you a good night’s sleep, as well as its healing benefits.
Well I thought I’d do my best to write something about what is actually in lavender oil. Be warned, there’s no dramatic “tah-dah, this is the magic ingredient” revelation, more a general description of some of the main ingredients. Even so, it gets a bit chemistry-nerdy, but hopefully you’ll persevere and find it interesting.
It’ a bit of a subject so the first part of this is how do we know what’s in lavender oil, and the second part is more of what is actually in the oil.
There is a wonderful process call gas chromatography (GC). Basically this is a much more sophisticated version of that experiment that you might have done at school when you put blob of ink on blotting paper and stood it in some liquid. As the liquid moved up the paper it sort of dragged the ink with it but at the same time separated it out into a variety of different colours. With the process of GC the lavender oil (you only need a millionth of a litre – not a lot!) is put into one end of a long, fine tube and as it is pushed through by a gas (it’s done at high temperature as well) it is separated into all it’s different chemical components.
The next step is to identify those components as they come out of the end of the tube. There are a variety of ways of doing this but a commonly used is a technique called mass-spectroscopy (MS). This is pretty techie stuff but in short it allows you to identify all those different chemical components in lavender oil by the amount they are affected by a magnetic field. This is related to the weight (mass to you chemists) of the component and the electrical charge on it.
Simple. No. It’s specialist stuff, needs some expensive kit and someone who knows what they are doing and how to “read” the data. At the end of the analysis, you end up with a graph that looks a bit like the one on the left (each spike on the graph is one component) and a list of the chemical components and their percentage levels in the lavender oil.
So, what does this analysis tell you? The most obvious thing is how complicated lavender oil is. Possibly up to 100 different chemical components, all produced by the lavender plant as part of it’s everyday bio-chemistry. Life is complicated, and I’m sure every single one of those components somehow serves a vital purpose for the plant.
In the next post – What is Lavender Oil made from? – Part 2 – I’m going to describe some of those components, explain what other plants they are found in, maybe have some molecular pictures and try to relate the smell of them to the overall fragrance of lavender oil.
Note: The author Alastair Christie runs Jersey Lavender, and studied Chemistry at university. He is however, many years on, a rather rusty chemist and apologises to any super-chemists out there who think he’s done a poor job of describing GCMS!!!