On January 31, 2007, the National Institute of Health’s, NIH News published an article entitled “Lavender and Tea Tree Oils May Cause Breast Growth in Boys”. It mentions a study in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) which suggested that repeated topical use of products containing lavender oil and/or tea tree oil may cause prepubertal gynecomastia, a rare condition resulting in enlarged breast tissue in boys prior to puberty. What I’ve set out to do is to show these findings as less than scientific.
The NIH News article made conclusions based on correlations theories not proven using the scientific method. The NIH News also says of the NEJM‘s study that they “…speculated that environmental factors might be contributing to… (the children’s) condition.” This supports the idea that the cause may not be so easily identified, nor isolated. It is my opinion that it is negligent to assume these conclusions based on what appears in a non-controlled environment without detailed examination. Further, this article concluded that “(t)hese essential oils might now be considered endocrine disruptors since they appeared to have caused an imbalance in estrogen and androgen signaling.”
The National Institute of Environmental Health Studies defines endocrine disruptors as: “…naturally occurring compounds or man- made substances that may mimic or interfere with the function of hormones in the body” which “may interfere with the endocrine system…” The article also points out that they are prevalent in “everyday products we use, including some plastic bottles and containers, liners of metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, food, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides… (and that) the difficulty of assessing public health effects is increased by the fact that people are typically exposed to multiple endocrine disruptors simultaneously.” Therefore, it’s difficult to isolate the blame onto any one cause or pathogen. This does not represent NIH’s typical attention to detail and scientific method.
Further, there were immediately available Letters on the NEJM website refuting the conclusions made in this report. The first letter from Kathi J. Kemper, M.D., M.P.H., Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Aviva J. Romm, Yale University School of Medicine, and Paula Gardiner, M.D., M.P.H., Harvard Medical School, asks questions which point out inconsistencies in the study and states that “(t)he study by Henley et al. (Feb. 1 issue) raises many questions…” and that the “(p)lastic containers may contain phthalates, known endocrine disrupters” and that “(t)raditional use and clinical trials have not suggested estrogenic effects of tea tree or lavender oil… In vitro testing alone is not adequate grounds for indicting traditionally used products and may raise public fear.”
The second, written by Shirin Kalyan, Ph.D., University of British Columbia, states that “A growing number of endocrine disrupters in our environment have been shown to accumulate in adipose tissue”. This seems significant to me for the following reasons. A) It points out -again- our need to examine our environment and clean it up, immediately. B) We know that white adipose tissue (body fat) absorbs and stores environmental toxins like a reservoir and therefore the substance(s) that may be the actual endocrine disruptors may have been stored in the children’s body fat for some time, from some other source and meted out later. As a matter of fact, according to the minireview “White Adipose Tissue: Storage and Effector Site for Environmental Pollutants”, by D. Mullerova, Institute of Public Health, Medical Faculty in Pilsen, Charles University, published by Physiological Research, located online at http://www.biomed.cas.cz/physiolres/pdf/56/56_375.pdf, white adipose tissue acts as “…a reservoir of lipophilic (able to dissolve in fat) environmental pollutants, especially of those which are resistant to biological and chemical degradation.” Even fat- soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) get stored in body fat which is why we are careful to ingest only the recommended daily amounts, whereas the water-soluble vitamins are urinated out.
Also, the report admits that “…other components in these products may… possess endocrine-disrupting activity that contributed to the gynecomastia, but those components were not tested because we chose to evaluate only the component that was found in all the products used by the patients (lavender oil) and a chemically similar component that was found in some of the products (tea tree oil).” So it’s possible, in other words, that the combination of other ingredients in the products produced it.
In 2007, Tony Burfield of CropWatch Newsletter (No 6- Democracy Issue) said in his compilation located at http://bit.ly/CropwatchNewsltrNo6. “This story has been very widely featured in the media at face value, with almost no investigative reporting… Henley et al. do not satisfactorily prove cause and effect for any identified substances in the applied cosmetics, nor have they isolated, analyzed and authenticated the manufacturer’s claim for the alleged presence of essential oil ingredients as being 100% derived from the named botanical source. The minute doses of essential oils received by the boys, derive from the low concentrations allegedly present in the soap, shampoo (products which are washed off the skin), hair gel & and the leave-on fragranced lotion – although the latter (reportedly) did not affect the twin of one of the affected boys in the study when used just by itself… the Randall Neustaedter Natural Health Newsletter refers to an article (Neustaedter 2007) which identifies the manufacturer of the hair gel & shampoo (allegedly via information from Clifford Bloch, the pediatric endocrinologist from Denver) which caused the problem for all 3 boys as, again allegedly, being manufacturing under the Paul Mitchell brand name. This product is apparently supposed to contain both lavender and tea tree oils, although the above cited Newsletter reports that an analysis found little evidence of the presence of tea tree oil in the cosmetics.”
This study was published in 2007. It is three years later, and I am just now getting clients coming in the door who are afraid of lavender. I attribute this to a new variation of the trickle down theory. Things get published and republished and referred to without proper analytic examination and then it finds it’s way into the general public’s consciousness and becomes a “truth”. It happened in the aerobics industry too. Someone misinterpreted a graph and then wrote an article, it got repeatedly republished and quoted and eventually it became an industry standard to train personal trainers to tell personal training clients that they would burn more fat with less aggressive aerobic exercise. I had to literally hand the refuting article to my clients, before they would believe me. This, it seems may have spread through the grapevine in much the same way. Thankfully, we have people like Tony Burfield and Robert Tisserand to look to for perspective.
Which brings me to Robert Tisserand, Award Winning Educator, Editor, Founder of the original Tisserand Aromatherapy, Consultant, and Author of many books on my shelf (one of which is entitled Essential Oil Safety). Robert Tisserand, actually posted a link to a his article “Tea Tree and Lavender Not Linked To Gynecomastia ” directly on his site www.roberttisserand.com, refuting the conclusions of this report. I found it enlightening and it is the clincher in my opinion. Please feel free to read it.
Which brings me to why I have written this article. Several of my massage therapy clients came in recently expressing an aversion to using massage oil blends with lavender in them. Their reason is that their doctors told them it was dangerous. I can only assume that these doctors felt that the age old adage “better safe than sorry” applied to the use of lavender in the home and that they had not read all the refuting statements against this study and therefore, they were afraid of one of our favorite national past-times, suing. First, I want to point out that this report that has them scared is based on studying a mere three children in an uncontrolled environment.
Secondly, essential oils, like drugs, are among many other factors, dose dependent. Based on body weight, adults weighing much more than children, adults would require much larger amounts to have any cause for concern. These dosages are simply not used in aromatherapy massage oil blends. The amount of essential oil in a massage oil blend is generally pretty small. Essential Oil Safety generally recommends a max of 1-5% dilution blended into a carrier oil, that’s 25 drops to 50ml (a little more than 2oz) of carrier oil. The bulk of the oil is usually some combination of oil you might find in cooking or in salad dressings. Essential Oil Safety further states that the amount of essential oil absorbed by the body through the skin is “likely to be in the ½ drop to 2 drops (0.025-0.1ml) range.” Other factors affect absorption. They are beyond the scope of this article, however, they
include: temperature, presence of water, whether you cover the skin post treatment, carrier skin permeability influence, and dermal metabolism. Basically, the dosages found in massage oils used in most spas and by massage therapists, as well as creams, moisturizers and shampoos etc. are measured, come from huge companies with vested interest in staying in business and safe.
What happens once they do get absorbed? In a nutshell, small quantities of essential oils are breathed out, the rest of the ½ to 2 drops goes into circulation to various parts of the body. Fat-soluble essential oil molecules initially behave as fat-soluble drugs in terms of distribution. They have an affinity for the Central Nervous System and the liver, more slowly finding their way into muscle and fat tissue. In the liver they get converted from fat-soluble to water- soluble molecules and get urinated out. Any essential oils that get to the bloodstream are invariably in much lower concentrations then drugs and are eventually filtered out by the kidneys.
Keep in mind that the use of essential oils and herbs has stood the test of time having been used in medicine and cosmetics for thousands of years (much longer than any of our pharmaceuticals have been on the market). The use of essential oils has been celebrated world wide in historical books such as the Bible, praised in our poetry, used in bathing and religious ceremonies and depicted in Ancient Egyptian wall paintings. In conclusion, the beneficial effects of essential oils and herbs have been applied extensively throughout history. I hope this examination of the issue has assisted you in relaxing and being able to more freely enjoy the healing benefits of one of the mildest, yet most effective essential oils, lavender. Lavender has a fresh, clean scent and is used most commonly to provide relief from bites, stings, lice and burns, persistent infections due to immune deficiency, migraines, asthma, insomnia, and nervous tension.