Revisiting Lavender and Tea Tree Oil & Breast Development in Young Boys

Okay, so I’m reading Samuel S. Epstein, MD’s new book Healthy Beauty: Your Guide to Ingredients to Avoid and Products You Can Trust to review it.  (BTW – If you buy the book from the link, I get some change, and I mean just a little bit of change, because it is linked through my Amazon affiliate account). This isn’t the review because I’m not done with the book yet.

Nevertheless, I got a little annoyed at a paragraph in the book. And when I get annoyed, I am compelled to blog.

Why did I get annoyed?

First, because a citation wasn’t right. The citationwas in Chapter 5, endnote 36, which was the wrong reference. It should have been endnote 37. Okay, no big deal (I shouldn’t even quibble since my own book, Smart Mama’s Green Guide: Simple Steps to Reduce Your Child’s Toxic Chemical Exposure, has some typos not to mention a big mistake in the summary on the back cover). But the fact that the citation was wrong leads to the second reason. 

So the second reason, and the more important reason, is because lavender and tea tree oils are presented conclusively as posing a “hormone disruption dilemma.” Dr. Epstein writes that they cause breast enlargement in young boys. Which is why I was even looking at the citation to see if there was some new medical study other than one from several years ago, which I talked about in a blog in 2008.

And there isn’t one cited – just the same article as before. And that article – a brief report – links lavender and tea tree oils to prepubertal gynecomastia (breast enlargment) but it isn’t conclusive. Also, it isn’t clear whether the products contain true lavender and tea tree essential oils, or synthetic versions.

The article cites 3 incidents of enlarged breast development. The first case reported using a compounded “healing balm” containing lavender oil with no more information. The second case reported using a styling gel and shampoo containing lavender and tea tree oils, but no information on a stay on skin product. The third case reported using lavender-scented soap and intermittent use of lavender-scented commerical skin lotions, both of which may well not have been lavender essential oil but a synthetic lavender scent.

Now, laboratory testing has confirmed that lavender oil and tea tree oil possess weak estrogenic and antiandrogenic activities. So I don’t dispute the possibility that lavender and tea tree oils may be linked to unwanted breast development in young boys.

But it is a possibility. And I think that it is more honest to state that it is a possibility, instead of scaring people. With the information that it is a possibility, many may choose alternative skin creams and lotions that don’t contain such ingredients.

Homemade Cleaning Recipes – Green, Healthy, Non Toxic and Frugal!

castile soapThe 518Moms blog posted some green cleaning tips from my forthcoming book, Smart Mama’s Green Guide: Simple Steps to Reduce Your Child’s Toxic Chemical Exposure , and since they are some of my favorite tips, I thought I would share the post with you. So check it out for green cleaning tips that are non toxic AND will save you some green. 

But, the blog post left out my most favorite tip – a homemade soft scrub. I find a soft scrub to be the most versatile cleaner – from the toilet to counter tops to sinks. All you need is some liquid castile soap, some baking soda, some essential oil and some glycerin (perhaps). I like Dr. Bronner’s rose or citrus castile soap – rose smells wonderful if you like floral, and citrus is great too. Just place 1 cup baking soda in a squeeze bottle and add castile soap until you get the consistency you like. I like almost a ratio of 1 to 1, but make it as you want. You can add an essential oil for a pleasing scent, or add an oil with antibacterial properties, such as tea tree or rosemary. If you plan to store (not use up right away), add 2 teaspoons vegetable glycerin. 

A note on castile soap – castile soap is a soap made from vegetable oil, not a brand. Target carries Dr. Bronner’s castile soaps in the natural beauty oil, or you can pick up from almost any health food type of store. You can also order online – Mountain Rose Herbs (click on the affiliate ad over on the left and I make some many if you order – I love Mountain Rose Herbs and that is why I’m an affiliate). 

However, if you have hard water, a soap may not work that well. Try a small amount and see how well it performs.

Make your own disinfecting spray


Curious about how to make an easy disinfecting cleaner?  Here’s how to do it from Healthy Child Healthy World.  Skip buying many different conventional cleaners at $4.99 or so each and instead make them from ingredients you find at home. 

What you’ll need: 

  • 2 cups water (preferably distilled)
  • up to 3 teaspoons liquid castille soap
  • 1 teaspoon tea tree oil
  • spray bottle

Do lavender & tea tree essential oils cause breast growth in boys? Are they endocrine disruptors?

Lavender flower bunchAt the BlogHer’08 conference, one of the topics among green bloggers was whether it was safe to steer people to products containing lavender and tea tree essential oils.  If you are trying to steer clear of phthalates in fragrance and parabens as a preservative, you might switch to natural products containing lavender and tea tree essential oils.  And many baby personal care products contain lavender especially since it is believed to be calming.  Tea tree essential oil makes a great disinfectant spray – and can be used to clean mold.

But, you may recall that last year, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the use of certain products containing lavender and tea tree oils was associated with the breast tissue growth in boys prior to puberty.  This has led to some concern that lavender and tea tree essential oils may be endocrine disruptors, and should be avoided.

So, after the conference, I went back and looked at the research.  The report was 3 case studies – 3 boys, ages 4, 7 and 10.  The case studies all involved the topical application of products containing lavender and tea tree essential oils, and the 3 boys experienced breast tissued growth.  The enlarged breast tissue subsided once the products were discontinued.  So, it was believed that the breast tissue growth was associated with the products.  Breast tissue growth is generally attributed to interference with the hormone signaling – the endocrine system.  Subsequent laboratory studies showed weak but definite endocrine disrupting effects for lavender and tea tree oils. 

But, were the products really the cause, and did they contain lavender and tea tree essential oils?  I think that is a little unclear.  The case report does not provide detail as to whether the products at issue actually contained tea tree or lavender essential oil.  The first boy is reported using a healing balm contaning lavender oil, but there is no analysis or detail on the actual ingredient.  The second, styling gel and shampoo listing lavender oil and tea tree oil.  The third, lavender scented soap and skin lotions, but no confirmation that the lavender was synthetic as opposed to natural.    

More importantly, the case report does not seem to evaluate the boys’ exposure to any other known endocrine disrupting chemicals – PCBs, organochlorine pesticides, phthalates, parabens, or alkyl phenols.  And phthalates and parabens are commonly found in personal care products. 

As for the laboratory studies? Not unexpected.  In vitro studies have previously identified weak hormonal effects from essential oils – but these are very weak. 

My conclusion?  I think it is clear that there is not enough information.  I think using tea tree essential oil for cleaning is not a problem.  (Smart Mama Simple Tip:  A great disinfectant – 2 teaspoons tea tree essential oil in 2 cups water in a spray bottle.)  But, you may want to consider avoiding repeated skin application of personal care products intended to be left on (such as moisturizing lotions) containing lavender and tea tree essential oils.