Debate over the effectiveness of essential oils has raged fiercely as they have increased in use during the last decade.
Two types of essential oils, lavender and tea tree, have been especially controversial among those who rally against possible harmful side effects of the alternative medicine. A 2007 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that three pre-pubescent boys from the same family who had all grown breast tissue were suffering the side effects of too much contact with lavender and tea tree.
The condition of men growing breast tissue, called gynecomastia, is actually not uncommon for young men entering puberty, but the oldest of the three brothers in the study was only 10. The family had been using lavender and tea tree in the form of styling gels, lotion, healing balms, and shampoos. All three of them had developed breasts — though one brother, who did not use the lavender as his twin, did not suffer the same affliction as his siblings.
Researchers believed that the essential oils could be the culprit in the gynecomastia and, therefore, recommended that all of the children stop using any related product. Months later, they were no longer growing breast tissue.
“The repeated topical application of one or more over-the-counter personal care products that contained lavender oil or tea tree oil was documented for all three patients. Case 1 provided the clinical clue to lavender oil as a potential source, because it was the only topically applied agent used by that child. Use of lavender oil was considered trivial by the child’s mother, who acknowledged its use only after repeated questioning.”
Sensing a link, the team isolated human cells that were responsive to estrogen and mixed them in test tubes with the essential oils. While estrogen itself was not destroyed, the cells themselves did not fare well with the lavender and tea tree samples. To the doctors, it appeared that they may have found their link. It was enough, at least, to caution other medical professionals to ask about essential oil use if young male patients experienced the same problem.
“This report raises an issue of concern, since lavender oil and tea tree oil are sold over the counter in their ‘pure’ form and are present in an increasing number of commercial products, including shampoos, hair gels, soaps, and body lotions. Whether the oils elicit similar endocrine-disrupting effects in prepubertal girls, adolescent girls, or women is unknown… we suggest that the medical community should be aware of the possibility of endocrine disruption and should caution patients about repeated exposure to any products containing these oils.”
Since then, companies who sell essential oils have lambasted the study — as well as some experts in the scientific community. One study, using rats, found no link between essential oils and increased estrogen. Robert Tisserand, a shareholder of First Natural Brands, joined together with other detractors of the study to publish a 2013 Letter to the Editor that criticized a lack of consideration of other factors. The essential oils used, they argued, were not organic and could have also been easily contaminated.
“Since no compositional data on the lavender or tea tree oils was provided in the original paper, the presence or absence of xenoestrogenic contaminants such as plasticisers, pesticides or herbicides is unknown. Conclusions about the estrogenic activity of the oils are not possible without these data… It is worth considering that the chemical constituents of lavender and tea tree essential oils are not unique to those oils. They are found in hundreds of other essential oils. If these two oils did possess estrogenic activity, then it is likely that other essential oils would also.”
What do you think about claims the lavender and tea tree essential oils are responsible for breast tissue growth in boys?
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