This is a question that I have seen many times among essential oil users and skeptics. It is a common concern that I want to address today.
Many people are afraid to use lavender and melaleuca (tea tree) on their children because of a study that was done in 2007. In this study, 3 boys (ages 4, 7, and 10) went to their doctor because of gynecomastia (enlarged breast tissue in males). They were all using a different personal hygiene product that contained lavender, tea tree, or both. The gynecomastia resolved after the stopped using the products.
Sounds legitimate, right? Let’s highlight the problems with this study.
1. It was a sample of three boys
I’m not a scientist, but generally a larger, random sample pool is required for adequate results and conclusions. Much larger.
2. They were all different personal care products
There was no consistency in what the boys were using. One was a “healing balm” that contained lavender. Another boy used hair gel and shampoo that each contained lavender and melaleuca. The third boy used lavender scented soap and lotions. Studies should use the same control and test object to get accurate results.
3. We don’t know what else was in those products
The study doesn’t give any details about the products the boys were actually using. Many personal care products contain known endocrine disruptors, and these products were not evaluated for their presence. The Discussion section of the study even states that they did not evaluate the other ingredients, which may have contributed to the gynecomastia. This sums it up well:
“The full list of ingredients in these products were not mentioned, nor the possible chemicals included in the packaging of the products. Parabens were likely included in the ingredients and phthalates in the packaging. In a recent study, diethyl phthalate was found in 103 out of 252 products, which included fragrances, hair care products, deodorants, nail polishes, lotions, skin cleansers and baby products.3 Both phthalates and parabens have been shown to have an estrogenicity presence.” - Are Lavender and Tea Tree Oils Estrogenic?
4. The oils weren’t checked for purity
Essential oils are a fast-growing industry. There are many opportunities for adulteration and cheapening the oils. These additives can have negative effects, both known and unknown. This is why purity is so important! This is directly from doTERRA:
“The claim that Lavender will cause gynocomastia (enlargement of breast tissue in males) and other hormone imbalances is not well founded. As far scientific research has been able to demonstrate, lavender and melaleuca do not affect hormone levels, nor do they cause skin sensitivity. In fact, most pure essential oils are quite soothing to the skin. But if you use an essential oil that is not pure and has additives or other chemicals mixed in, you may experience some negative side effects. This is why it is so important to use a trustworthy, pure essential oils product.”
5. The test solvent may have skewed results
Once the researchers saw the results of removing the potential offender, they decided to test their hypothesis. They tested lavender and melaleuca in a petri dish with human cells. There were signs of estrogenic growth. However, the solvent used to dilute the oils was dimethyl sulfoxide…a xenoestrogen itself!
6. Their results were not definite
The end of the study says that “lavender and tea tree oil possess weak estrogenic and antiandrogenic activities that may contribute to an imbalance… we suspect that repeated topical application of over-the-counter products containing lavender oil or tea tree oil was the cause of gynecomastia in the three patients.” (emphasis mine)
What other people say
This 2007 study seems to be the only one that found lavender and tea tree oil to be estrogenic. Here’s a comment on the study from three medical doctors:
“Traditional use and clinical trials have not suggested estrogenic effects of tea tree or lavender oil, though estrogenic effects have been reported for other essential oils and plants.”
Also, this study showed that exposure to lavender in concentrations much greater than a personal care product had NO EFFECT on the uterus of estrogen-deprived rats.
My thoughts? I don’t believe there to be any hormonal concerns with lavender and melaleuca/tea tree essential oils, but only if a pure essential oil is used.
Please check out the wonderful article that Mommypotamus wrote on the subject.