Step aside pastel crystals, sprinkles of turmeric, and apple cider vinegar shots. In case you (somehow) haven’t heard, essential oils are the “it” antidote of holistic remedies. Tackling everything from blemishes to body aches, lulling the sleep-deprived back to bed, and reducing mental stress, adding a few drops to a diffuser or a skincare product isn’t abnormal. Some people even use these products to restore balance in their bodies when they're feeling a bit off. But what essential oils affect hormones specifically, and are there any setbacks you should be aware of? According to multiple studies, two of your favorites are under heavy scrutiny, so you might want to proceed with caution the next time you oil up.
Normally, this is the part of the article where I buckle down and wag my finger at you for giving into yet another social media trend gone sour, but I’m actually going to do the polar opposite this time around. You don’t have to ditch essential oils, or even cut back on usage if you’re an avid user, but you should definitely take what I’m about to tell you into consideration. Like anything else that’s being absorbed by your body, there’s always a chance things can go wrong from the inside out.
Research says chemicals in lavender and tea tree essential oils have estrogen-like, as well as testosterone-inhibiting properties that can mess with your hormones in a big way.
For the record, there are scientific studies in favor of essential oils, which is why you really don't need to chuck all of yours in the trash just because of this particular research. Consider it a mixed bag of information, and if you're really not sure how to proceed, consult with a health professional who can answer any questions you might have.
So, let's get into the facts: A new study found eight compounds in both lavender and tea tree essential oils that can potentially mimic the hormones in your body and cause unusual growth — specifically, breast growth in men.
Now, this isn’t the first time these two essential oils have been called out for causing male gynecomastia (the fancy term for breast growth). Back in 2007, a study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine that found “repeated topical exposure to lavender and tea tree oils probably caused [breast growth in young boys].” According to this research, breast growth in men will typically occur when their sex hormones are disrupted, thus increasing levels of estrogen on the breast tissue, and causing this part of the body to develop in the way that a woman’s body normally would.
As problematic as this is for men, according to women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., women aren't necessarily in the clear, either: “[These essential oils] can mimic the hormones in our body or interfere with normal processes,” she told Women’s Health, and can lead to “tumor growth, developmental, reproductive, and immune issues.”
This information isn't something to take lightly, but for what it's worth, essential oils have been known to balance hormones, too.
Take clary sage, for example. Dr. Axe reports that a study in 2014 actually found that breathing in this specific essential oil toned down cortisol (aka stress) levels by an impressive 36 percent. And even though I’ve clearly pointed out a major faux-pas in lavender, the fact remains that this lovely essential oil is also known for its calming properties, so there are definitely pros and cons to consider here. Thyme’s another one that stands out for its ability to balance progesterone and keep anxiety levels low, according to MindBodyGreen.
Clearly, more research needs to be done here, but in the meantime, the best thing you can do is learn how to use essential oils properly and safely.
I’m not going to say that this sort of information should be taken with a grain of salt, especially because it’s been more than a decade since that first study came out, and still, the same findings appear to be resurfacing. What I will say is this research is still really new, so don't toss out your pretty (and probably very expensive) vials out the window just yet.
Massaging these essential oils into your skin sounds luxurious, and can feel like the best form of self-care at the end of a hard day, but as soothing as these products can feel, and as good as they may smell, skincare is, essentially, an experiment at best. Unlike sleep masks you wash off in the morning, essential oils get cozy in between layers of skin until they’ve made their way into the bloodstream. That means any chemical your favorite blend is made of is seeping into your body, and there’s no telling what will happen until you try them out, which is why it’s so important to know how to properly dilute essential oils before applying them.
Some essential oil brands sell blends that can already be used directly on the skin, but remember to always read labels carefully before jumping the gun and lathering up without diluting. If you’re purchasing essential oils in their purest form, you need to dilute the product using a carrier oil (a vegetable oil like coconut, olive, or grapeseed will work just fine), water, or by adding the oil to skincare products such as soap, shampoo, moisturizers, etc.
Once you’ve mastered dilution, the next step is to figure out how much is too much when it comes to application. According to essential oil brand Young Living's oil safety guide, typically, proper usage of an oil can be found on the product label. However, if for some reason this information isn’t laid out for you, the brand suggests “starting low and going slow.” In other words, because essential oils can be so powerful in their effects on the skin and body, one to two drops should be more than enough.
Overall, when it comes to these kinds of studies, the best thing you can do is consider them a warning. Again, proceed with caution, and make sure to dilute an essential oil when necessary, and remember that less is more with these products.