The case of two young boys who experienced swelling in their breasts after using bath products made with real lavender oil set off a firestorm of controversy among aromatherapists and others who work with volatile organic extracts on a daily basis. To some, this case was proof of something they had long held—that essential oils were powerful substances capable of both helping and harming the body. But to others, this story was just one more attempt by “mainstream” medicine to discredit the power of aromatherapy. The effects of the oils, they claimed, were overblown and unproven.
But now that nearly 4 years have passed since the case was published, we thought we’d take a second look at the potential link between essential oils and gynecomastia, or sweling of the breasts.
The fact is, despite claims made by the nature-can’t-hurt-you crowd, a number of essential oils have estrogenic actions. Vitex, lavender, anise, fennel and tea tree are only 5 oils that can mimic the effect of the hormone estrogen in the body. Given that most essential oils have still not been exhaustively tested for heavy or long-term use in humans, one has to wonder what other oils have the potential for side effects.
Aromatherapy needs to decide if it’s a folk art or a serious science. If aromatherapists are going to claim that essential oils have healing effects on the body they must admit that essential oils can also be harmful.
Kurtz, J. (2007). Prepubertal gynecomastia linked to lavender and tea tree oils. New England Journal of Medicine.
Hu, Y., et al. (2007). Estrogen-like activity of volatile components from Vitex rotundifolia L. The Indian Journal of Medical Research.
Howes, M., et al. (2002). Assessment of estrogenic activity in some common essential oil constituents. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology.
Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash
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