One wouldn’t know it when looking at a bottle of lotion, but the practice of using lavender goes quite far back.
Lavender is a plant with dark purple flowers that is indigenous to areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and was prominently cultivated in North Africa. It belongs to the family of similar plants called Lavandula which look similar. And, like many other things we have inherited from ancient civilizations, it seems our use of lavender has its origins in Egypt several thousand years ago. Written records point to its use as being one of the ingredients in embalming mummies, which may not quite be what is had in mind when talking about skincare!
Since the dawn of human civilization, healers have turned to the medicinal properties of lavender to treat many ailments. The early Egyptians are recorded to have used lavender oils in baths, perfumes and healing ointments. Other folklore tells us that our ancestors used dried lavender leaves stuffed inside of pillows to help promote quality sleep.
It was mentioned later in other Greek texts, and even in the Old Testament of the Bible. The legendary Queen of Sheba was a fan of its use.
Our early ancestors knew something that we are just confirming today with modern science. They understood as we are relearning today that our natural world holds the key to solving most of our physical, spiritual and psychological ailments. All we need to do is simply take a deep breath, slow down and have a look around. We are all made of the same cosmic dust and it simply makes sense that whatever we may be lacking in a metabolic sense can be found and supplemented.
Lavender was believed to have many beneficial properties, which include its use in treating sepsis as well as certain kinds of wounds.
Not everyone in the modern scientific community is convinced of lavender’s healing properties, but this was one of the things the plant was known for during its history of being cultivated. No doubt, the believed healing aspects of the plant spread to its popularity among many ancient civilizations which differed in many other respects. Things that we take for granted, such as running water or disinfectant, were not available to most people for most of the history of humanity. In a world where an untreated wound could lead to horrific health problems or even death, lavender was probably seen as near-miraculous by some and of great value.
Oils were in fashion for a long time in the Mediterranean world. We find reference to them in many ancient texts, and the Jewish and early Christian practice of using oils carries over even today. Lavender, along with other plants, was added to synthesize with different kinds of oils, most likely olive oil, to produce something which was probably thought of as a cure-all today. The use of these kinds of oils could be found in many different places, ranging from Spain to Syria. However, it would be unwise to think it was limited to its native regions as trade routes were growing. No doubt, lavender was imported in some form along the Silk Road to China, and it probably made its way as far West as what is now the U.K.
In addition to lavender’s healing effects, it was also known as a softener for fabric and clothing.
Many modern laundry detergents still use lavender for this reason. Lavender became so prominent when the rich and powerful had their clothes laundered in the Middle Ages, that the word lavender was actually used as a nickname for those who washed clothing. For a job that required such strenuous labor, the poor laundry workers likely found relief in the fact that lavender was effective in softening hands and skin as much as shirts and dresses.
The use of lavender in what we now consider beauty and cosmetic products grew during the late Renaissance and early modern era.
The likely reason was due to the increase in trade. Things that were unknown or rare soon became more available. The Mongolian Empire had brought contact from the far reaches of East Asia to Western Europe that would last long beyond the death of Genghis Khan. European nations were seeking to colonize and trade with many different lands. Beauty enhancing products could be traded with interested parties as well as produced more readily with many varied kinds of ingredients. New kinds of products appeared and were traded all over the world. Lavender, once mostly confined to the regions of North Africa, Southern Europe, and the Middle East, could now be sent all over the world. Not only that, but lavender could grow in areas where it was not native too as long as the climate was similar.
Lotion, as we know it today, really didn’t appear until later, and we begin to see it being produced and sold in the mid 19th century.
There is a mention of lavender as part of the recipes for different kinds of lotions that were available in England at this time. However, there were other harmful products that were also prominent in lotions and other similar items such as mercury and lead. No doubt, the harmful effects were noticed by the people who were simply using the product to make their skin look younger. Women were especially vulnerable because they wanted something that would boost their attractiveness. Some of these lotions made very appealing promises such as essentially reversing the appearance of old age, but in the end they caused more harm than good.
Lotions soon came to be used by both men and women. Taking a look at antique lotion bottles from the turn of the 20th century, one will find that lotion was used by men in the way that aftershaves, deodorants, and even colognes now function. The lotion market became more competitive as more companies vied to have their product sold. Royall Lyme, for example, was a lotion that was meant for “gentlemen” who could use it for several of the aforementioned purposes. Some lotions included lavender while others didn’t.
The use of lavender specific lotion rose to prominence during the past several decades due to increasing demand for natural ingredients.
As time has progressed, and as we have learned more about the effects of certain chemicals on the body, people have had a stronger preference for lavender and other plants because not only are they so useful for skincare, they are not something that needs to be made in a laboratory. Lavender is helpful to the body by itself so it makes sense that products could use it as a staple ingredient when looking for something tried and tested.
Today, lavender specific lotions have skyrocketed. It would be difficult to walk into a store and not find any while many of the tonics and products of the past have seemed to return to nothingness. They range from cheap bottles which can be found in grocery stores to luxury items which appeal to certain exclusive preferences. A bottle of Avalon lavender lotion, for example, can cost around one hundred and fifty U.S. dollars. It is unlikely lavender based lotions will disappear, and if lavender itself has shown us in history, it is going to be around for a while.