Combating Some Aromatic Myths

By Shellie Enteen , RA, BA, LMBT

Combating Some Aromatic Myths

By Shellie Enteen , RA, BA, LMBT

It appears like a good time for another "Aromatic Myth" column after some of the information about the safety of essential oils has been circulating in the media and on the Internet recently. Strange things are happening. There is misinformation circulating about the use of two very popular essential oils: lavender and tea tree.

A short while ago, the Board of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy received a copy of an article appearing in The New England Journal of Medicine citing the case of three prepubertal boys from Denver who had developed some breast tissue. The condition is called gynecomastia. The researchers concluded that this abnormality was caused by the estrogenic effect of the miniscule amount of lavender and tea tree oil in some over the counter soap, shampoo and lotions. Their article, in a prestigious medical journal that is widely accepted as an authoritative resource, warns the medical community to caution parents about using products containing lavender and tea tree. So, is it true? Should we judge the use of essential oils based on this article? What do we tell our clients who talk about this report and ask for our opinion?

A press release by Robert Tisserand, a highly respected researcher and English aromatherapist, issued shortly after the article appeared, stated:

"Recent media comments about lavender and tea tree oils causing breast growth in young boys (prebubertal gynecomastia) have grossly exaggerated the risks - none of the products were analyzed by the researchers to ascertain whether they did, in fact, contain lavender or tea tree oil. Even if they did, we do not know whether they contained sufficient quantities to have a physiological effect."

Derek Henley, who authored the research on which these reports are based, has said there is "not enough evidence to suggest people should stop using products containing these essential oils, even young boys," and that no firm conclusions can be drawn.

The details given about the cases are sketchy, but there is good reason to believe that tea tree oil could not have had any effect at all and that, in another case, lavender oil could not have caused gynecomastia. Further, the researchers failed to check for chemical hormone disruptors, such as parabens, pesticides and phthalates that may have been in the products concerned.

Laboratory testing did show evidence that both essential oils had an estrogen-like action, and this had not been previously reported. However, it cannot be assumed that the same (affect) will happen in humans. Any correlation between the laboratory testing and the three cases in question is, at best, circumstantial.

Prepubertal gynecomastia is an extremely rare condition. Both lavender and tea tree oil are present in aromatherapy cosmetics used by millions of people, who should be assured that they can continue to use them safely."

In a four-page letter to The New England Journal of Medicine, citing previous research on tea tree oil and asking for a retraction, the Australian Tea Tree Industry Association ( states:

"The recent reports alleging that lavender and tea tree oil may be causing breast growth in very young boys has very little substance, is a product of poor reasoning, and is cast into doubt on many grounds...Many researchers and scientists have looked at this article, and raised concern and alarm at the poor methodology and conclusions which are certainly not supported by science."

When such science is amplified by publication in a respected journal, and the media beats up the story, it has damaging consequences all out of proportion to the facts. This article was uncritically reported around the world causing alarm and commercial impacts and fear. Is this responsible?

The journal refused to retract or to print the ATTIA letter and accompanying research article.

The lavender and tea tree information was closely followed by a report from Tony Burfield of that the European Union cosmetic regulators were going to effectively eliminate the use of citrus oils in perfumes. "In our view, this once more confirms the Brussels 'anti-naturals' fragrance ingredients machinery is operating in overdrive, becoming a vendetta of scandalous proportions." Yes, citrus oils are known to contain a chemical that increases sensitivity to sunlight; however, citrus oils have been used for centuries in perfumes and personal products. A list of the fragrances alone that will be affected carries many famous names, old and new. And what this decision might do is put citrus oil producers out of business, so it won't just be the perfume industry that is affected.

Our concern here is practicing massage with essential oils in a safe way. In previous articles, I have said that I prefer to use essential oils in diffusion only for children under 7 years of age and in highly diluted amounts (i.e., up to three drops per oz of carrier oil) for those between 7 and 12 years of age. The ratio of essential oils to other components in over-the-counter personal products is much lower than this. As an active member of the aromatherapy community for 20 years, I have heard of a problem using lavender and tea tree on children. Nor have I been told of medical research that supports such a warning - and there is extensive medical research on essential oils. Nor have I heard evidence linking citrus oils to major health issues.

I don't plan to stop using these oils now and I encourage you to continue to use them with the proper dilution and consideration for allergy/sensitivity, age and other safety issues such as pregnancy. For more information, please read my previous articles in the archives or go to and search the safety section and frequently asked questions.