Washington DC: Essential oils such as lavender and tea tree oils, have become popular as alternatives for medical treatment, personal hygiene, cleaning products, and aromatherapy. Essential oils are also being used widely across the world to help boost weight loss process. However, a new study warns that regular exposure to lavender and tea tree oils could be giving boys pronounced breasts, suggesting a link between essential oils and abnormal breast growth in young boys called prepubertal gynecomastia. The study points out that key chemicals in these common plant-derived oils act as endocrine-disrupting chemicals. An endocrine-disrupting chemical is a chemical in the environment that interferes with hormones and their actions in the body.
“Our society deems essential oils as safe,” said study lead investigator J Tyler Ramsey, a post-baccalaureate research fellow at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health. “However, they possess a diverse amount of chemicals and should be used with caution because some of these chemicals are potential endocrine disruptors.” Read: Ibuprofen messes with male sex hormones, causes infertility among men
Male gynecomastia occurring before puberty is relatively rare, but a growing amount of cases have been reported to coincide with topical exposure to lavender and tea tree oil, and the condition went away after the boys stopped using the oil-containing products, Ramsey said.
Researchers at the NIEHS, including Kenneth Korach, Ph D, a co-investigator for the new study, previously found laboratory evidence that lavender and tea tree oil have estrogenic (estrogen-like) properties and anti-androgenic (testosterone inhibiting-like) activities, meaning they compete or hinder the hormones that control male characteristics, which could affect puberty and growth. Under Korach’s direction, Ramsey and his NIEHS colleagues went a step further. From the hundreds of chemicals that comprise lavender and tea tree oil, they selected for analysis eight components that are common and mandated for inclusion in the oils. Four of the tested chemicals appear in both oils: eucalyptol, 4-terpineol, dipentene/limonene and alpha-terpineol.
The others were in either oil: linalyl acetate, linalool, alpha-terpinene, and gamma-terpinene. Using in vitro, or test tube, experiments, the researchers applied these chemicals to human cancer cells to measure changes of estrogen receptor- and androgen receptor-target genes and transcriptional activity.
All eight chemicals demonstrated varying estrogenic and/or anti-androgenic properties, with some showing high or little to no activity, the investigators reported. Ramsey said these changes were consistent with endogenous, or bodily, hormonal conditions that stimulate gynecomastia in prepubescent boys, adding lavender oil and tea tree oil pose potential environmental health concerns and should be investigated further.
Of further concern, according to Ramsey, is that many of the chemicals they tested appear in at least 65 other essential oils. Thus, the public should be aware of these findings and consider all evidence before deciding to use essential oils.