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I often advise people to use essential oils. In general, they are helpful – sometimes healing, sometimes only comforting, but almost always with a positive effect.  If you asked today’s mom what would be her go-to substance to put on a minor wound, she might say tea tree oil. It’s well-known for its antibacterial qualities, and you can find it not only in ointments but also in shampoo, handwash, and other products.

The popular online site, WebMD, says the oil “may kill” bacteria and fungi, and help with allergic reactions on the skin. Applied topically (that is, directly on the skin), it is used for everything from acne, lice, athlete’s foot, insect bites, toothache and infections of the mouth, nose and ear. 

Another very popular essential oil is lavender, which is used in laundry detergent, bath soap, lotion, and many, many other substances that come into contact with the skin. While lavender may seem “too girly” for most boys, the spicy smell of tea tree oil doesn’t bother most of them.

Even though essential oils are often helpful, there is one specific way in which they should not be used.  According to researcher J. Tyler Ramsey, a postbaccalaureate research fellow at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS –part of the National Institutes of Health), use of both tea tree oil and lavender directly on young boys’ skin can have a very unwanted effect.

They can be what Ramsey calls “endocrine disrupters” that can cause prepubertal gynecomastia, or abnormal breast growth in boys. Another researcher found that the substances have properties like estrogen (a female hormone) and either compete with, or hinder, male hormones.  Hence, the breast growth.

Though they’re not certain of all the mechanics of how the substances work, these researchers cite a growing number of cases of boys using the substances topically and having breast development.

But there’s good news, too – when the boys who had breast growth stopped using lavender and tea tree oil, the symptoms went away.