ESSENTIAL OILS AND MALE BREASTS: Media Reporting “Science” is Severely Lacking 6 years ago

This tired story of lavender and tea tree causing male breast has resurfaced in the media again ( ). I thought I would give some time to it so people can know how to properly address some of the aspects of these studies using some points that the average person at home, with little science background might not think about. As with all "science" articles that are hyped up to make them palatable to the mainstream media for shock value etc., there are many details that are not disclosed and many questions about these studies that are not asked. Generally people just read the headlines plus a few sentences and conclude that the article, since it's from a well known source, must be true. This is a truly disastrous way of thinking, but it's pretty much the way things are in America. We are very lazy when it comes to science and we are suffering because of it. It's way worse now that it was even just 20 years ago. The reporters in these outlets are a large part of the problem, motivated by wanting the sellable story and not caring about any real science behind it.

For example, if we really read any of these reports with a critical eye we can see several problems. First of all, we never know the source of the oils used in these studies and never see any GC reports on the oils used. We have no idea if they were even actual essential oils. Did they buy them on Amazon? The media is oblivious to the fact that about 75% of all essential oils on the market are adulterated and most of the soap products claiming to contain things like lavender, rose, etc. actually have zero percent true essential oils in them. That's right- zero! There are myriad soap and cosmetic products out there which people use thinking they have essential oils in them, but actually contain synthetic fragrances instead.

In the referenced BBC study, essential oils were not even used! Those who actually read the article will see that, "The new study looked at eight key chemicals from the hundreds that make up the oils. Four of the tested chemicals appear in both oils and the others were in either oil.” What the media doesn’t understand is that studying single chemicals is not the same as studying a true essential oil that has hundreds of chemicals. Furthermore, they don’t say anything about the enantiomeric purity of the chemicals used. Enantiomers are basically molecules that are mirror images of one another, and they can behave quite differently in the body. For example, all amino acids that make up proteins in living organisms are made from L-amino acids. We can take amino acid supplements, but they often times will be a 50/50 mixture of the L and D forms if they are made synthetically. The D form will be completely unusable by the body. In the best case scenario they are just expelled in the urine; in the worst case, the D form can actually be deadly. All of these isolates that were used in the study have both an L and a D form. The plant typically makes one form or the other in major excess. For example, the linalool and linalyl acetate in lavender (the main components in lavender) are around 99% in the L form with very little of the D enantiomer in the true essential oil. If cheap synthetic linalool and linalyl acetate were used in the study, there would have been equal ratios of the L and D form. The same goes for basically most synthetics that are common to essential oils, yet there is no mention of which enantiomers of the chemicals where used in the studies.

The next problem with this current study is that, “They were tested on human cancer cells in the laboratory to measure the changes. The researchers found all eight demonstrated varying degrees of promoting oestrogen and/or inhibiting testosterone properties.” What? Are you serious??? I don’t know where to start here. Testing individual chemicals on cancer cells in a dish and extrapolating that to how complex essential oil mixtures would behave in an even more complex human body is simply folly that I would not even expect a grad student to participate in. Likewise, it should not be said that cancer can be cured by drinking frankincense oil because the oil killed cancer cells in a dish. It’s ludicrous!

The sheer lack of science in this BBC article makes it hard for me to comment in a polite way. These reporters should be required to have a degree in the field of science for which they are going to report. The article contradicts itself. For example, it states “Prof Ieuan Hughes, Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Cambridge, said the findings ‘have confirmed why an individual using such oils containing these chemicals may develop breast tissue.’ ” It then goes on to say, “The anti-male hormone effects are rather unexpected and it is not possible to comment further without the data.” And then it says, “Of course, not everyone exposing themselves to such oils has adverse effects, so it is possible there are particular individuals who may be more sensitive to the effects of the chemicals, or perhaps are using the products in excess.” Could it be there are other factors in some individuals that haven’t been considered? Perhaps the products that are being used DON’T HAVE TRUE ESSENTIAL OILS IN THEM IN THE FIRST PLACE!!

The article then goes on to make a point against itself by admitting, “However, there are important factors that must be taken into account when interpreting these results. The tests are conducted in cancer cells, which may not represent the situation in normal breast tissue.” May not represent the situation in normal breast tissue? I can’t believe this is a scientist speaking! How about ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT REPRESENT THE SITUATION when we are are talking about inside the human body? The article is then capped off with these two gems: “The concentration (dose) to which the cells are exposed may not be equivalent to exposure in humans. There is a complex relationship between oestrogen, testosterone and other hormones in the body, that cannot be replicated in these experiments." and, “At present, there is insufficient evidence to support the concept that exposure to lavender and tea tree oil containing products cause gynaecomastia in children, and further epidemiological and experimental studies are required.” At this point the reasonably intelligent person should be asking, “How did this report even make it to the BBC?” All of the above comments negate the validity of the entire study, yet the author reports earlier in the article that “Prof Ieuan Hughes, Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Cambridge, said the findings ‘have confirmed why an individual using such oils containing these chemicals may develop breast tissue.’ ” This is stated as if it’s a certainty that essential oils are causing it. Unbelievable! This makes me wonder if the BBC author even bothered to read and comprehend his own article!

In summary, please read ANY science subject in the mainstream media with a VERY critical eye - not just essential oil related information, but ANYTHING related to science. One would wonder if these journalism majors could pass a high school chemistry exam. Why then would we trust them to accurately report on a science subject that perhaps they are not capable of understanding themselves? Even if they report it correctly, do they have the skills to ask critical questions? Often times the pesky, yet important details can get in the way of a good story, so the motivation is not really there to ask them. If there is one thing I can leave you with when evaluating any “science” article on essential oils, it is this: if the article does not give the full GC/MS report of the oils used in the study, it’s not worth the cyberspace its written in!

Sign up for the EOUdb for more education opportunities.