The earlier post – What is Lavender Oil Made From? – Part 1 - was about how lavender oil is often analysed using a process called gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy. The results of this shows that lavender oil is pretty complicated; containing up to a hundred different components. This post is about these components.
One thing to immedately notice if you analyse lots of lavender oils – and here I’m only really talking about the oil from lavandula angustifolia (“English” lavender, lavender officinalis, “True” lavender) – is how different they all are. These variations are due to lots of factors – variety of lavender, soil, growing conditions, climate, harvest & distillation process and storage. They will all smell like lavender oil, but when you line them all up, look at them and smell them in comparison with each other, then differences will be obvious.
So what are the main components? Lavender oil is made up mainly from two components – Linalool and Linalyl Acetate. These two are often found together since one is readily turned into the other, and they can make up from 55% to 90% of the oil, but more typically around 70%. There is usually slightly more Linalyl acetate and on it’s own smells floral, bergamot, petitgrain.
The Linalool smells floral, sweet and slightly rosey with a touch of spice.- in tests has been shown to reduce stress, and there is some evidence that it can kill cancer cells. It is found in other plants such as laurel, basil and rosewood.
The levels and ratio of these components are often quoted in the specification of lavender oil, and in fact you will come across an oil called lavender 40:42. If you find this on a website selling “pure” essential oils, go elsewhere. Lavender 40:42 is a good perfumery quality of oil, but has been mixed with synthetic linalol and linalyl acetate to bring the levels of these components to 40 and 42 pecent. It may smell nice but it isn’t wholly natural.
Next most abundant are a whole host of components that can usually make up only a few percent each:
- Camphor – has a strong fresh, smell that “clears the nose”. It is often used in vapour steam products to help breathing and decongest. Higher levels of camphor are found in oil of lavandula x intermedia -often called lavandin. Camphor is also used as a moth repellant. Oil of lavandin “Grosso” is also produced at the Jersey Lavender farm. Once upon a time camphor was extracted from the wood of the camphor laurel (Cinnamomum camphora), a large evergreen tree found in Asia (particularly in Borneo and Taiwan), but these days the vast majority is synthetically produced.
- 3-Octanone – has a sweet, bananary, berry smell.
- Terpinen-4-ol – has an earthy, fresh, green, musty smell and is thought to be the active anti-bacterial component in Tea Tree oil.
- 1,8 Cineol – otherwise known as eucalyptol, since it is the main component of eucalyptus globulus oil. It has a strong fresh, clean eucalyptus-like fragrance.
And then of course, there are lots of other components in tiny quantities, such as caryophylene, germacrene, ocimene, humalene, geranyl acetate, borneol, and many others. It is these that give natural lavender oil it’s depth and richness, and make the difference between synthetic oils and natural oils.
Since the bulk of lavender oil is made up of so few materials, it is possible of course to “reconstitute” lavender oil using the synthetic chemical components, and indeed you do get something that is both cheap and smells lavendery. If a perfumer is creating a lavendery fragrance for a cheap floor cleaner then this is often what they will use, and not the more expensive natural oil. However sometimes, I have no doubt that through crookery or ignorance these synthetic blends do make their way to market, being passed off as natural oil. My blog post Lavender Oil: sometimes, all is not quite what it seems expands on this.
If you have any comments or questions, I’d be happy to do my best to answer them.