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February 01, 2007

Lavender and Tea Tree create Media Furor

The publication of a study in the New England Journal of Medicine [subscription required for the full paper] and a related article in the NIH News have led to a media frenzy about Lavender and Tea Tree oils.

A study published in this week’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine suggests 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, and for which a cause is seldom identified.

The story has been picked up by the news services and the article has gained widespread coverage and is being published in local papers.

This information has been around since the paper was first presented at a conference last summer, and Tony Burfield covered it thoroughly in Cropwatch Newletter #4. As he concludes:

So…. any estrogenic activity of tea tree & lavender oils is not much supported in the literature by historical or anecdotal observations (apart from some very loose association with lavender), and no active substances found in lavender & tea tree oils causing these alleged associations readily spring to mind. It will be interesting therefore to see if the findings of Henley & Reiter can be independently confirmed with pure essential oils 100% derived from the named botanical source, and a direct biological mechanism derived for the process. Further, since other common natural phytochemicals such as linoleic acid have also been suggested as weakly estrogenic agents, it will be interesting to see how widespread the causes of this medical phenomena might potentially be - we are aware for example of the use of the seeds of Black Cumin Nigella sativa L. to plump out women’s breasts in Egyptian times (Genders 1986), but we have no information on whether the essential oil of Black Cumin has similar properties

The study is also being discussed on the Blogs.  Abel Pharmboy at Terra Sigillata seems to like the study, but points out that:

the offending components of each oil are not investigated or mentioned by name. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia or L. officinalis) and tea tree (Melaleuca alternafolia) are among the most highly investigated medicinal and fragrance plants because their monoterpene compounds largely smell good and have been linked with anti-anxiety (lavender) and anti-bacterial (tea tree) effects. Howes et al. surveyed the estrogenic activity of many essential oil constituents and found that some compounds were weak estrogen agonists while others antagonized estradiol.


Blogmistress comments: NIEHS researcher and co-author of the study,  Ken Korach, PhD, covered his you-know-what: "Although we found an association between exposure to these essential oils and gynaecomastia, further research is needed to determine the prevalence of prepubertal gynaecomastia in boys using products containing lavender and tea tree oils."  Methinks the paucity of conclusive scientific evidence and flawed research should nip this in the bud.  However, probably not.   I've been watching Senator Henry Waxman's Oversight Committee, in which findings reveal political influence on scientists to water down their findings on climate change, along with disturbing revelations about the pressure on FDA scientists.  More about that as we move along.

Posted by Rob on February 1, 2007 in Aromatherapy, Lavender/Tea Tree/Gynecomastia, Research | Permalink


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Its a bit of a mystery why the New England Journal of Medicine decided to publish this hypothesis, based as it is on only 3 cases (it was stated as 5 previously in Henley's 2006 address to the Endocrine Society) and with causality not clearly established. Could it be that it is another example of academics scoring brownie points for bashing natural products? If you really want to find something scary on hormone disruptors try looking at the effects of di-(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate on young girls/women's reproductive systems. Cropwatch will be submitting a critique of the findings to the NEJM and asking for a higher standard of refereeing wrt natural product studies in future.

Posted by: Tony Burfield | Feb 2, 2007 2:59:38 AM

An article in a local west coast publication "Conscious Choice" on the problems that widespread use of plastics reminded me that there are many different materials in our world that cause health problems. The effects of Lavender and tea tree, if they are actually implicated in this case, are probably minor compared to all the other synthetic contaminants that permeate our lives, such as the plastic bottles those lotions were probably provided in.

The authors of the article themselves say "However, a specific cause is rarely identified, and in 90% of patients, prepubertal gynecomastia is labeled idiopathic. In such patients, the condition may be caused by exposure to an environmental chemical that disrupts the endocrine system and leads to disproportionate estrogen and androgen pathway signaling, a finding reported in a limited number of adults with gynecomastia."

They go on to say: "Other components in these products may also 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 turns out that there may be other things that might have contributed to this case. The media appear to want to demonize aromatherapy so they want to focus on the aromatherapy connection in the study.

More about that later.

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