Essential oils from an exceptional plant ....

The properties of lavender, the emblematic plant of Provence, are multiple and apply in fields as varied as health, cosmetics, hygiene, well-being and food.

The Egyptians soaked cotton fabrics with lavender during mummification and the Romans used its aromatic qualities to perfume clothes and baths. “Lavender” derives its name from the verb “lavare” – to wash. In the Middle Ages, lavender was considered an aphrodisiac plant and was also used to fight the Bubonic Plague.

What about today?


Lavender or Lavandin?

Lavender and lavandin have been two emblematic, traditional products of Provence for decades. These were still picked in nature at the start of the 20th century. Now cultivated, the two species differ in usage. This is why it is important to distinguish between the different types of lavender.

There are three main botanical species of lavender in France:

The officinal lavender, also known as fine lavender or true lavender (Lavandula angustifolia in Latin), can be found as a wild plant in the dry Mediterranean mountains. It can be identified by its bluish white or intense blue hue. It is also cultivated in the south of France from Aude to Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azure (PACA) via Quercy. True lavender produces the most versatile oil (for both medicinal and cosmetic use). The name originates from the Middle Ages from the Latin lavare, meaning “to wash and purify”, and angustifolia, meaning narrow leaves.

Lavender aspic, lavandula latifolia in Latin, grows as wild plant in Occitania, PACA and on the limestone Causses. It is cultivated in France and Spain and is mainly used for balms against pain.

Lavandin, lavandula bumati, results from the crossing of fine lavender and aspic lavender. Several different varieties of this species are suited for different uses depending on their camphor content. That is why they are regularly used in industrialized products. However, lavandin can be found as a wild plant.

AOC “Protecting true lavender from Haute Provence”

Since 1981, true Lavender has been the subject of a controlled designation of origin (AOC) under the label “Fine Lavender of Haute Provence” as a precautionary measure to curb competition from foreign species and distinguish a high-quality product. The plants must be in a geographical area at a minimum altitude of 800m and only in certain departments: Vaucluse, Drôme, Alpes de Haute Provence and Hautes Alpes. A total of 284 municipalities are involved.

While cultivated areas flowered vigorously until 2005, they have since then gone to decline due to successive annual droughts and increased phytoplasma (attack by plant-based pests).

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Essential oils: the (al)chemistry of the senses

Did you know that a pure and natural essential oil contains no fat?

Essential oil is indeed a volatile and natural aromatic substance secreted by aromatic plants in the aerial parts (flowers, leaves, stems, fruits, seeds and twigs) as well as those below ground (roots, rhizome).

Essential oils are obtained through the distillation of aromatic and medicinal plants. These are powerful natural plant extracts of extraordinary effect. By combining them, it is possible to develop new aromatic synergies whose virtues and properties meet specific needs. The essential oils are composed of about twenty large chemical families, and a thousand molecules give each of them their particularity.

Essential oils are extraordinarily effective but pay attention to the instructions for use! It is necessary to be vigilant in choosing them, using them wisely and above all without ever abusing them because in high doses essential oils are toxic: a single drop is enough to flavor a dish, for example.

Lavender contains various molecules that have medicinal properties, including linalool, linalyl acetate, limonene, cineole, and eugenol.
Generally, the flower is distilled to obtain essential oil which has multiple virtues. Thus, lavender can be used as an antidepressant and sedative. It is also used as an analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and healing agent. It is also antibacterial. Its hypotensive (regulating blood pressure) and antispasmodic (preventing spasms) qualities are also appreciated.

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How are essential oils extracted?

Several main manufacturing processes are used to extract essential oils:

- Cold extraction: The vegetable substance goes through a hydraulic press where it is subjected to high pressure. This process is reserved for the various citrus fruits (grapefruit, mandarin, …)

- Steam drive/distillation: the plants are immersed in water and placed on one or more trays in a heated still. Heat causes the formation of steam that passes through the plants and carries the aromatic molecules with it. After passing through a refrigeration tank, a liquid composed of water and essential oil is recovered. The lighter essential oil, also referred to as hydrolat or floral water, is easily separable from the mixture. It is loaded with soluble aromas and mineral elements from the plant.

- Solvent extraction is also used for certain essential oils, useful for obtaining absolutes (alcohol).

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Why it is better to choose organic essential oils

Quality essential oil is expensive, that's a fact. Its high price is linked to the work required to produce it (weeding and hand picking and lengthy distillation of the plant) as well as the distillation yield. This yield varies according to the species and the distilled parts. Concerning lavender: 1 hectare of lavender produces on average 26kg of essential oil. 1 hectare of lavendin produces about 100kg of essential oil.

Some unscrupulous producers are thus tempted to use additives to improve yield, which considerably reduces the quality of the essential oil obtained. Other parameters can modify the quality of an essential oil: the conditions and location of harvesting, the fertilizers and pesticides used.

For organic lavender growers, the lavender harvest depends on micro climates. To obtain a quality essential oil, lavender must be picked early enough as allergen levels increase with continued exposure to the sun. Pesticides are a no go because lavender is a honey plant and may kill visiting bees.

It is therefore important to choose an organic essential oil, subject to specifications, guaranteeing their quality and to support real growers that are passionate about sustaining production!

Organic fragrance plants represent about 60% of the total French floral surface area. They concern 32% of lavendin and 25% of lavender.

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Where can you find essential oils today?

Popularized by organic shops and alternative medicines such as aromatherapy, essential oils are no longer the exclusive domain of perfumers; the latter have replaced them with much cheaper synthetic products.

Luckily, the major traditional perfumers and organic perfumers still prefer “pure and natural” essential oils, i.e. neither mixed nor cut with molecules of other essential oils or synthetic molecules.

Valérie de “Mars”, who likes to define herself as an “aroma-perfumer”, conceives perfume as a care product. She uses no less than *21 different organic essential oils for each “active heart” of perfume. Lavender is systematically present: “I use lavender for its soothing qualities. Lavender is already effective in small doses”. As part of her slow cosmetic approach, she prefers organic products to be sure that there are no pesticides that are endocrine disrupters.

Essential oils are used as flavor enhancers (coffee, tea, tobacco, wine, yoghurt, readymade meals), even as a type of flavor, but also as scents for household products! The comparatively low production cost of lavender essential oils makes the plant suitable for industrial perfumery.

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aroma garden

Lavender in organic cosmetics

Essential oils are demonstrating potential in a currently booming sector: cosmetics, namely its organic products. The oils are found soaps, shampoos, shower gels, creams, etc.

Florent, manager of Aroma Garden, for example, uses no less than 70 essential oils to produce his organic and vegan cosmetics. He says: “we choose our essential oils according to their cosmetic, curative and olfactory properties. Their fragrance signals to our body and mind what is right for us…”

Of course, such manufacturers should choose essential oils carefully; knowing where they come from is part of it. This requires asking key questions: is the lavender cultivated without pesticides and without treatment? Are they affected by any pollution and are they locally sourced?

Kathrin, European Development Manager at Dr. Bronner’s, explains that her company uses a total of 16 different organic essential oils in the development of their personal care products, including 9 in their soaps. They know all their partner producers and workers who grow and process their main raw materials personally and support fair trade projects.

“For organic lavender essential oil, we work with the family-run Distillerie Bleue Provence and we greatly appreciate the direct contact with them as well as the expertise they share with us and their commitment to biodiversity and sustainable development.”
Lavender thus occupies a prominent place in cosmetics. The most popular of all lavender essential oils, true lavender is known to be soothing and calming. It also contains powerful antioxidants that can fight the harmful effects of toxins and pollutants on the skin.
A study conducted by Howard University College of Medicine, Washington DC, also revealed that lavender oil was one of the only essential oils powerful enough to inhibit the growth of bacteria on the skin. For this reason, lavender is also used on oily skin, problem skin and sensitive skin.

Curious to know more about the secrets of lavender? Our Organic lavender in Provence reality tour walks you through the process of producing the fragrance.

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