Lavender oil and pregnancy

Pregnancy oil (iStock)A Google search for “Avoid high doses of lavender oil during pregnancy because it is a uterine stimulant” produces about 10,500 hits, though none of these will tell you how much constitutes a “high dose”. (Yes, I checked every single one.) Other Google search results about lavender in pregnancy include:

Lavender oil is a uterine stimulant” – 15,800 hits.

Lavender is an emmenagogue” – 106,000 hits.

Lavender should be avoided in the first trimester” – 191,000 hits.

Clearly there is some concern about the safety of lavender oil during pregnancy, although there are also a number of sites where lavender is either absent from “should not be used in pregnancy” lists – in fact it is only rarely found on such lists – or where the oil is actually stated to be safe in pregnancy.

The safety concerns raise questions such as:

  • Is lavender oil a menstrual stimulant?
  • Is lavender oil a uterine stimulant?
  • If it is either or both of these, what is the dose threshold?
  • Is lavender oil safe to use in pregnancy?

Particular risks that would apply to the first trimester are (a) an increased risk of miscarriage and (b) risk of fetal malformation. However, these risks do not go away after three months, and so limiting avoidance of a reproductively toxic substance to the first trimester only makes sense if there is evidence to support this guideline. But, is lavender oil even reproductively toxic at all?

 

Emmenagogues
An emmenagogue, or menstrual stimulant, may act by directly stimulating uterine contractions, or through stimulating hormone production. Bartram (1995) defines emmenagogues as: “Plant substitutes for hormones that stimulate the pituitary gland to produce more gonadotrophic hormones. Herbs that initiate and promote the menstrual flow. Most are uterine tonics and stimulants to restore normal function of the female reproductive system. Not used in pregnancy, except when a practitioner has good cause to do so in the first few weeks.” Bartram goes on to list 54 herbs, though lavender is not one of them.

Lavender constituentsThe absence of lavender from Bartram’s list is not surprising since it has not traditionally been regarded as a herb to avoid in pregnancy, or as a uterine stimulant. Culpeper (1652) did say that “lavender….provokes women’s courses”, i.e. stimulates menstruation, but he was referring to spike lavender, not true lavender. In his 1964 text, Dr. Jean Valnet refers to lavender oil as an emmenagogue when internally used, though he gives no contraindication for pregnancy. Lawless (1992) also cites lavender oil as an emmenagogue, though not limited to internal use, and there is similarly no pregnancy contraindication. Franchomme and Pénöel (1990) give no contraindications at all for lavender oil, and do not mention menstrual stimulation but they do list an antispasmodic action for the oil. An antispasmodic action on the uterus suggests a substance that is helpful in menstrual pain, and not one that would stimulate menstruation.

Davis (1999) says that lavender oil is helpful in “reducing…scanty menstruation” and that it should be avoided during the first trimester. It  seems likely that Davis was picking up on Valnet’s use of “emmenagogue” and that her mention of first trimester avoidance was an assumption on her part. Tiran (2000) mentions that lavender oil “contains a small amount of the ketone camphor, which can be emmenagogic” and that it “should be used with caution in early pregnancy”. In fact the amount of camphor in true lavender oil is very small and camphor only presents a risk in pregnancy in massive doses (see below).

Herbal safety texts
Three herbal safety texts have concluded that lavender flowers are safe to use in pregnancy, and one of theses includes the essential oil. (These are the only such texts in my possession – there may be others that draw different conclusions.) McGuffin et al (1997) give lavender flowers a “Class 1” rating, meaning generally safe to use, with no contraindication for pregnancy or breastfeeding. They apply this to Lavandula angustifolia (true lavender) L. latifolia (spike lavender), L. stoechas (Spanish lavender) and L. x intermedia (lavandin). Mills and Bone (2005) state that using lavender flowers (L. angustifolia and L. spica) is compatible with breastfeeding, and is safe in pregnancy: “No increase in frequency of malformation or other harmful effects on the foetus from limited use in women.”

The Complete German Commission E Monograph for lavender lists L. angustifolia, both flowers and essential oil, as officially “approved” and with no side effects and no contraindications. This includes internal use of 1-4 drops (20-80 mg) of the essential oil as a daily dose (Blumenthal et al 1998). The Commission E Monographs are generally regarded as the most authoritative source on the safety of herbal medicines.

What the research shows
Camphor is neither reproductively toxic nor abortifacient except in almost fatal doses, and a lethal human dose is approximately 200 mg/kg. No adverse fetal effects were seen from feeding camphor to pregnant rats at 1,000 mg/kg/day, or pregnant rabbits at 681 mg/kg/day (Leuschner 1997). This non-fetotoxic rabbit dose is equivalent to an adult human dose of 48 g (1.6 oz), and a person would have to ingest 24 kg (52.9 lb) of lavender oil to reach that amount of camphor. Therefore the camphor in lavender oil presents no risk.

Linalool is not reproductively toxic. When it was administered by stomach tube to pregnant rats at 250, 500 or 1,000 mg/kg/day, on gestational days 7-17, no fetal toxicity or teratogenicity occurred at any dose level (Politano et al 2008). The high dose is equivalent to an adult human ingesting 70 g of linalool, or approximately 200 g (7 oz) of lavender oil. Linalyl acetate has not been tested on animals for reproductive toxicity.

Lavender is spasmolytic

The research shows that lavender oil (L. angustifolia) is not a uterine stimulant. When used on the isolated rat uterus, it in fact reduced contractions (Lis Balchin and Hart 1999). And, lavender oil has no apparent adverse effects during childbirth. It was one of ten essential oils offered to 8,058 women in an 8-year study at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, UK. Aromatherapy did, however, reduce the need for pain medication. During the years of the study, the use of pethidine in the study center declined from 6% to 0.2% of women (Burns et al 2000).

One in vitro study found that lavender oil had a very weak estrogenic action in MCF-7 breast cancer cells (Henley et al 2007). However, there is no evidence that lavender oil has any adverse effects on human hormonal activity. In another in vitro study, lavender oil inhibited the growth of MCF-7 cells (Zu et al 2010) suggesting that, while it may bind to estrogen receptor sites in the body, it is not an estrogen mimic, and so does not promote estrogen.

Conclusions
Proving safety in pregnancy is always a challenge, but all the indications are that lavender oil is completely safe to use. It is certainly not a uterine stimulant – in any dose. The online references to lavender oil as a uterine stimulant presumably originated from the few books (probably beginning with Valnet in 1964) that describe it as having an emmenagogic action. An assumption was then made that this was due to a uterine stimulant effect, and a further assumption was made that therefore lavender oil could pose a risk of miscarriage in pregnancy. However, there is no evidence that either lavender flowers or lavender oil stimulate menstruation. Thus are myths conceived. Patricia Davis, I’m sure, felt her caution was well-founded, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see that it was an over-reaction. Erring too heavily on the side of safety has a downside – it creates fear, doubt and confusion.

Finally…while searching the internet for the alleged dangers of lavender oil in pregnancy, I came across this advice on a Vitamins and Health Supplements Guide page: “Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid using lavender, as it is a uterine stimulant.” What, breastfeeding women too? The logic of this escapes me. Surely a woman wants her uterus to contract back to it’s normal size after childbirth. (Not that lavender oil would do this anyway.)

References
Bartram T 1995 Encyclopedia of herbal medicine.  Grace Publishers, Christchurch UK, p166

Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A et al 1998 The complete German Commission E monographs: therapeutic guide to herbal medicines. American Botanical Council, Austin, Texas, p160

Burns EE, Blamey C, Ersser SJ et al 2000 An investigation into the use of aromatherapy in intrapartum midwifery practice. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine 6:141-147

Culpeper N 1652 The English Physitian, or an Astro-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs of this nation. Being a compleat method of physick, whereby a man may preserve his body in health; or cure himself, being sick. Thomas Kelly, London

Davis P 1999 Aromatherapy an A-Z. CW Daniel, Saffrom Walden, p322

Franchomme P, Pénöel D 1990 L’aromathérapie exactement. Jollois, Limoges, p364

Henley DV, Lipson N, Korach KS, Bloch CA 2007 Prebubertal gynecomastia linked to lavender and tea tree oils. New England Journal of Medicine 365(5): 479-485

Lawless J 1992 The encyclopaedia of essential oils. Element, Shaftsbury, p118

Lis-Balchin M, Hart S 1999 Studies on the mode of action of the essential oil of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia P. Miller). Phytotherapy Research 13:540-542

McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R et al 1997 Botanical safety handbook. CRC Press, Boca Raton, p68

Mills S, Bone K 2005 The essential guide to herbal safety. Churchill Livingstone, St. Louis, p493

Politano VT, Lewis EM, Hoberman AM et al 2008 Evaluation of the developmental toxicity of linalool in rats. International Journal of Toxicology 27:183-188

Tiran D 2000 Clinical aromatherapy for pregnancy and childbirth. Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh p137

Valnet J 1964 Aromathérapie. Librairie Maloine, Paris, p225 (English translation: Valnet J 1990 The practice of aromatherapy. CW Daniel, Saffron Walden, p144

Zu Y, Yu H, Fu Y et al 2010 Activities of ten essential oils towards Propionibacterium acnes and PC-3, A-549 and MCF-7 cancer cells. Molecules 15:3200-3210

34 comments to Lavender oil and pregnancy

  • Jamie Bean

    Oh my goodness…I don’t know WHAT I would have done without LAVENDER during my pregnancies. It was one of the only ways I could relax with my second and for her to relax too when she was awake when I wanted to sleep. So glad I got a good education on essential oils and thank you for all you do. :)

  • Great post. I will be happy to share it!

  • Thank for this wonderful article. I have linked it to my blog article regarding the use of essential during pregnancy.

  • Sandi Nye

    Thank you! At last, some good-sense among all the non-sense, relative to the clinical benefits of lavender. Essential oil myths and scare-mongering are so prevalent – in print, cyberspace, and debate – which your balanced and well-referenced article helps to contextualize. I will certainly share it too.

  • Stephanie

    Thank you for writing this. So many contradictions written on this subject. Reposting!

  • Oh Robert – so good to once again hear the voice of educated and diligently researched reason. There is so much misinformation “out there” now with the internet that it drives me insane if I look at most of it, other than those aromatherapists I have had personal contact with or can tell quite quickly that they are professionals in the use of essential oils. However, wanting to have an accurate essential oil data base on my website, also gives me occasion to make sure, as you have done here, that the routine practice of “an assumption was made, and then a further assumption – thus are myths conceived” doesn’t happen with what I disseminate. This fact has slowed me down considerably in completing my task as it takes so much time, weighing and balancing all of the conflicting information. I often see that an oil is both a stimulant and a relaxant, which can happen with different dosages, but they don’t say that! I also see the same properties being attributed to essential oils that are attributed to herbs – and that is not always the case. I know you know all this. I’m just voicing my frustrations and am thankful that you address many of these issues yourself. I seriously think that any person who decides to put information on their website concerning essential oils should have to do or have some basic requisites in place in order to be considered a reputable source. The one thing – are they truly educated in the science? Another thing – the botanical name and chemotype should be required every time an essential oil is mentioned if one is making ANY claims about it. And – from what part of the plant is the oil being distilled? So many of even the classic books on aromatherapy haven’t bothered to give us this information- they just say “lavender” and there are so many different lavenders with different properties! Doing research on Rosemary drives me crazy! And I love research! I believe that AIA is moving in that direction with their requirements for papers presented for publication. I can assume that your being a part of that committee has certainly been very helpful. So – thank you once again.

  • Thank you Ann, and I think I may adopt the tagline – “the voice of educated and diligently researched reason”! I hear you on rosemary. There are a number of chemotypes – 5 I reckon – and if the research does not identify the composition of the oil used, it’s close to worthless. And of course, the same goes for many/most essential oils. “Stimulant” and “relaxant” is indeed a minefield, especially as there can be potentially conflicting physiological and psychological responses. But the research is beginning to address this issue, which is great. I believe aromatherapy is pushing up to a new level of credibility, for those who take the trouble to delve into the research. It’s complex, time-consuming, and not cheap, but it’s ultimately rewarding.

  • “Dear” Robert :>0

    Thanks very much for enlightening us with more truth about aromatherapy.

    Many blessings,
    Marlene Mitchell
    Representative of Western Canada with
    the Alliance of International Aromatherapists

  • Very grateful for this info. Great following your information Robert, again thanks!

    Tanya LaMothe
    NAHA Certified Aromatherapist

  • A wonderful clear concise explanation that gives answers to all the myths and hearsay
    Thank you

    Anita James
    MIFPA

  • Hi Robert
    Congratulations!
    Efficient collection and analysis. I do not think lavender is harmful to pregnant women.
    probably not affect lactation.
    The caveat must refer to transfer of substances from lavender to the child.
    Through the milk. My best regards.Elisabeth

  • Here in Brazil we have so many minsunderstandings about essential oil during pregnancy or childhood. I´ll give your post to my students and colleagues. Thanks a lot.

  • Thank you Elizabeth! I think developmental toxicity from lavender oil through breast feeding is very unlikely, especially as it is not neurotoxic. The most common developmental toxins are certain industrial chemicals, heavy metals or pesticides.

  • Thank you Robert for busting this myth about lavender. I have used lavender during my pregnancy and have recommended to many pregnant women to use it, knowing it won’t hurt. So great to have this article as a reference for all those women afraid of using this fantastic essential oil.
    Thanks for your wisdom Robert!

  • Thank you Robert yet again!
    Your commitment to the research and science of aromatherapy is immense!
    Lavandula angustifolia is the one oil I never travel without, so many uses and benefits. I now feel even more confident to use it with my pregnant and breastfeeding clients.

    I will surely refer all to this article if there is ever a “shadow of a doubt” on their part!

  • I am always happy to share your well researched information with my aromatherapy and massage students. You continuously enlighten and educate me, making me a better instructor.
    Thanks and blessings, Sara Holmes

  • Hi Robert,
    Thank you again on the quality of your articles. Even though , I already had no fear to use Lavender on pregnant women. It is interesting to know why is the reason.
    Thank you to be here and adding so much on aromatherapy education.

  • I was in San Francisco about a year ago in an organic baby shop selling my “wares” and the owner said they were not carrying any products with lavender (or tea tree) in them and advising their pregnant customers to avoid products with lavender because of new reports on it’s strong estrogenic action. I’m so glad you shared your knowledge on the science behind lavender and pregnancy! Thanks for all you share :)

  • Ah, real research! :) Fantastic work, truly!

    This is the kind of thing encountered everywhere nowadays. Most internet “writers” just copy-paste, or paraphrase wikipedia, or even use autoscraping tools to create web pages from other content with minimal effort. There is little sense of responsibility to perform even a cursory investigation of whether the ‘facts’ they are quoting have any basis – nor even to cite references. It all goes to show that the old quote “a lie gets halfway round the world before the truth gets its pants on” is more true than ever in the internet age.

    Sadly, this fact has been created because search engines, for all their greatness, cannot tell the difference between well researched and poorly researched writing – and that web site creators have thus grasped the notion that one can often make more ad revenue with a million bad web pages covering innumerable keyword combinations, than with a hundred good ones that remain ostensibly ‘buried’ by the morass.

    I have just one nit-pick with your report – the figures for the Google search results you cited at the beginning of the article are for “broad match” rather than “exact match” queries. For example your phrase “Lavender oil is a uterine stimulant” has only 8 exact matches in Google’s index (perform the search with inverted commas to see only the pages that include that phrase with those words in that order), not 15,800; whereas pages that include all those words, in any order, number around 15,800. It should not be concluded therefore that there are 15,800 pages in the index reporting that lavender oil is a uterine stimulant: Look down through the results and you will quickly find this to be confirmed. Also, how can you check every single one? Google ‘cuts the results off’ in my browser at around 800 – not 10,500.

    This minor contention aside, I scanned through Google Books and was not able to find historical basis for the ‘uterine stimulant’ meme, either.

  • Thank you Alex for your support, and for correcting me – I did not know about using parentheses, so very useful to know for future myth-busting episodes. Using parentheses, the largest number of hits is 299 for “lavender is an emmenagogue.” And no, I didn’t read every one – it was an attempt at sarcastic humor.

  • Dara Anzlowar

    Thank you Robert! I have always supported the intelligent use of lavender – both oil and herb – throughout all phases of life, including during pregnancy. Thank you for publicly and knowledgeably addressing this nonsensical non-issue!

    All the best,
    Dara Anzlowar

  • Hi Robert,

    As all other respondents have already said, “thank you”! I can only heartily agree with their accolades.

    As far as Google Search goes, I suggest reading Google’s Advanced Search tips (if you have not already done so) as a way of using Search to its full capability. Happy searching!

    Cheers,
    Jonathan.

  • [...] first trimester of pregnancy. For a well-researched article on the safety of lavender oil, refer to this article by Robert [...]

  • Wati Ismail

    Dear Robert,

    This is a security blanket for me, as I hv always come across too many people rejecting the use of essential oils during pregnancy. I love giving prenatal massages, and I don’t know what I would do without Lavender! I normally use Lavender & Rose in my prenatal massage oils.

    I bring a bottle of Tisserand Lavender in my bag all the time.. Funnily, when i handed and treated these skeptical people (pregnant ones too)the same bottle of Lavender in their times of need, they hushed up.

    Thank you very much, I have always been in awe of your work since I was 1st ‘introduced’ to you by my principal in 2002.

  • Thank you so much for this! I have been drinking lavender tea when I feel the need for the past year, and now that I am pregnant, I was really unsure of whether I could continue to drink it. I also infused flowers in coconut oil for my skin, and wanted to continue to use it as well, especially for my belly. I’m so glad to see that it is fine, because lavender has such a positive effect on my well-being. Thank you for posting this. My mind is eased, and I don’t have to toss my lavender tea or make new skin balm now! :)

  • Louisa

    Thank you! That’s very reassuring, especially I’m 8 weeks pregnant and have broken out in rashes last night all over my body and it was so bad I couldn’t sleep. I was so desperate I used a bit of the lavender oil to help ease the itching which did help (just enough to help me sleep). Glad to know it’s safe & I haven’t done any damage.

  • Again, another vote of positivity that someone has done the work to evaluate and educate on this subject. I wondered what you thought about Clary Sage in the first trimester? We are commonly using this for women in labour and I wondered if in fact it is this oil we should be avoiding in the first trimester? I read your post on the oestrogenic relationship so I wondered if you had any other research looking at early miscarriage and clary Sage?

  • robert

    Personally I do not see a problem in using clary sage oil during pregnancy. I can’t see any reason to support a risk of miscarriage.

  • Healer

    I recently read some articles and a warning about tea tree oil and lavender oil perhaps suppressing androgens, and even causing gynecomastia, in young boys. I’m worried now about the possibility of a XY fetus being feminized by such products and turning out transgender (MTF transgender women have been shown to have digit ratio on average like cis gender women do on average, suggesting that hormone exposure in utero may connect to transsexuality). I was looking that up to see if women might be using this in pregnancy and applying to skin and that’s how I stumbled across this page… do you have any ideas if pregnant women might be using this for skin discomfort? I am concerned about using lavender or tea tree products while carrying XY or male baby. Do you have any thoughts about essential oils that women might be using that might impact fetal hormones in utero? Thank you!

  • robert

    Healer – the degree of online concern about lavender oil, tea tree oil and hormones has been blown up to ridiculous proportions since the Henley et al paper was published in 2007. (No connection between breast growth and the use of products containing either essential oil was ever established, nor was it established beyond doubt that any of the boys had actually used products containing either of these essential oils.) The chances of any fragrance ingredient in a personal care product causing a hormonal effect are extremely small.

    We do now know that lavender oil is not estrogenic when applied to the skin http://roberttisserand.com/2013/02/lavender-oil-is-not-estrogenic/ and this strongly suggests that the in vitro effect seen had nothing to do with lavender oil. It was probably caused by the essential oil leaching phthalates out of the plastic trays used in the testing.

    As for tea tree oil, we know that none of the constituents of tea tree oil that are absorbed by human skin are estrogenic, and that anyway, only a vanishingly small amount of any essential oil is absorbed from a shampoo or hair gel (see my article on gynecomastia on this page: http://roberttisserand.com/publications/general-articles/).

    To answer your question, there is zero risk of an embryo or fetus being feminized or otherwise altered from the use of lavender oil or tea tree oil in hygiene products, or personal care products by a pregnant woman.

  • Hi Robert, I have been reading your myth busting pages with great interest! My pregnancy aromatherapy CPD course i did supports using many oils that are generally contraindicated in pregnancy, so it is fantastic to see strong researched evidence to back up what i have been told regards using lavender and clary sage, thank you! I am interested on your views if there are commonly used oils that really should be avoided in pregnancy?

  • robert

    Hi Morag, I would recommend avoiding these: anise, birch, carrot seed, cassia, cinnamon bark, fennel, hyssop, myrrh, oregano, pennyroyal, Dalmatian sage and wintergreen.

  • Nina

    Thank you for this information! Do you know if rosemary oil should be avoided during pregnancy? I use it in my shampoos.

  • robert

    Hi Nina, rosemary is fine in your shampoo – not a problem.

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