Once, when I was a fact-checker at The New Yorker, I was working on a very complicated story that required me to spend long, stressful hours on the phone speaking to the parents of children to whom truly horrible things had occurred, making sure all of the details of each tragedy were accurate. The writer of the story was stressed out, too, of course, and late one prepublication night, as we sat hunched over a draft together, she pulled out a small vial. “Want some?” she said. It was not, as you might be guessing, amphetamines, but rather a L’Occitane Lavender Relaxing Roll-on containing lavender essential oil, to be applied to the wrists and temples at moments of duress. It had been a gift to the writer from one of the parents, fittingly, who could tell she needed it during the harrowing reporting process.
Before then, I had always thought of lavender as an old-lady scent, found in cloying, powdery bath soaps or sachets in dresser drawers full of ruffled cotton nightgowns. Now, in oil form, it seemed like a potion with magic properties, like a portal to a sun-dappled field in Provence where a breeze rustled through the lavender boughs. I dabbed generously and inhaled deeply. Against my protests, the writer left the vial on my desk, where we both reached for it frequently over the course of the next few days, steeling ourselves until the story went to press.
A week later, I found a small gift bag near my keyboard, with a note thanking me for my work, and a Relaxing Roll-on of my own. I began to carry it around with me everywhere, finding it especially useful on nights I had trouble sleeping, and during red-eye flights. But it wasn’t until years later that I discovered its most potent purpose. Frustrated with an outbreak of adult acne that I couldn’t resist picking at, making each blemish infinitely worse, and tired of harsh astringents and gels and creams that seemed completely ineffectual, I turned to the internet to investigate homeopathic solutions. Lavender, I learned, was not only a soothing ingredient used in products for sensitive skin, believed to be anti-inflammatory, it was also thought to be anti-bacterial.
Ever the fact-checker, I dug further until I found some legitimate-looking scientific studies that seemed to back up this idea, or at least to take it seriously as a possibility. Suddenly, my little relaxation totem had become a tool for an on-the-go or at-home facial. Now, I dab some on my face daily, when I feel a zit coming on or when I’ve been unable to resist the disgusting temptation of squeezing a pore and want to heal as quickly as possible. I couldn’t tell you what’s happening on a microscopic level. Maybe it’s just a placebo. But it seems to work every time, tingling pleasantly and medicinally and relaxing me to boot.