What Is It?
It was centuries ago that Australian aborigines probably first started plucking leaves from a native tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) to treat skin infections. In 1770, sailors from Captain Cook’s expedition to the South Seas ventured ashore at New South Wales and brewed a tea using the leaves of the same tree. This event engendered the herb’s English name “tea tree”–which is actually something of a misnomer because the Melaleuca species bears no relation to the Camellia species, the usual source of tea leaves.
Today, an aromatic oil with a fragrance reminiscent of nutmeg is steam-distilled from the Melaleuca leaves. Because the Melaleuca alternifolia grows only in Australia, that country is now the major source of tea tree oil, exporting some 700 tons of annually. Tea tree products are often referred to as “melaleuca oil.” The pure oil is colorless to pale yellow.
High-quality tea tree oil contains 40% or more of terpinen-4-ol, the ingredient that fights harmful bacteria and fungi and makes the oil so effective in preventing and fighting infection in cuts, scrapes, insect bites, and stings.
Specifically, tea tree oil may help to:
Treat cuts, scrapes, insect bites and stings, and other minor skin wounds and irritations. Tea tree oil blends rapidly and easily with the skin’s own oils. In the process, the oil alters the chemical barrier of the skin, making it less hospitable to the growth of fungi and other organisms. In these ways, tea tree oil not only lessens the chance of infection, it also promotes healing and reduces the likelihood of scarring.
Fight fungal nail infections, jock itch, and athlete’s foot. Tea tree oil has been shown to be effective in countering Trichophyton, the fungus that causes numerous topical infections, including athlete’s foot and jock itch.
Shorten the course of vaginal yeast infections. Two of the organisms that cause these discomforts, Candida albicans and Trichomonas vaginalis, apparently succumb to the actions of tea tree oil.
Gently control acne. Even severe cases of acne have been shown to benefit from anti-acne preparations that contain up to 15% tea tree oil, an effect that can be explained by the oil’s antibacterial and skin-healing properties. In one study conducted in Australia, a comparison was made between a gel containing 5% tea tree oil and a traditional 5% benzoyl peroxide acne lotion. The products proved similar in their effectiveness against pimples, although the herbal preparation worked more slowly. It was notable, however, that the product containing the tea tree oil caused significantly less dryness, redness, scaling, and itching to the surrounding skin.
Treat dandruff and head lice. According to one study, a 5% solution of tea tree oil is effective against Pityrosporum ovale, a fungus that can cause dandruff. In a laboratory analysis of tea-tree chemistry, substances were discovered that can kill head lice. But human research is still needed, especially since the skin of children (a population particularly susceptible to lice) may be overly sensitive to tea tree oil.
Curtail warts. Tea tree oil is sometimes recommended for warts, which are caused by viruses. More research is needed to determine whether the oil is truly effective for this purpose, but it certainly does not seem to cause any complications.
Note: Tea tree oil has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Tea Tree Oil.
–Look for tea tree oil derived only from the Melaleuca alternifolia tree. Oil from other species can have a high percentage of cineole, a compound that can irritate the skin and hinder the oil’s active ingredients from providing any therapeutic benefit.
For minor skin wounds, insect bites and stings, and irritations: Cleanse the wound and apply one or two drops of tea tree oil to the affected area two or three times daily.
For nail infections: Rub tea tree oil on the nail twice a day.
For athlete’s foot: Apply tea tree oil or cream to affected areas twice a day and/or use it in a foot bath. For a foot bath: Put 20 drops of tea tree oil in a small basin of warm water and soak the feet for 15 minutes, two or three times a day. Dry the feet thoroughly after soaking and apply a drop or two of oil to the affected area.
For vaginal yeast infections: Use a tea tree oil vaginal suppository, available at health-food outlets, every 12 hours for up to five days.
For acne: Apply a drop or two to each acne lesion three times a day.
For warts: Put a few drops of the oil on a small gauze compress and tape it over the wart at bedtime. Remove it in the morning. Repeat until the wart heals.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Tea Tree Oil, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
When buying a topical antifungal preparation advertised to contain tea–tree oil, make sure the oil is from M. alternifolia and is one of the first ingredients listed.
Tea tree oil is found in various skin-care and beauty products (shampoos, soaps, and so on) but often in amounts so minuscule that it provides virtually no antibacterial effect. To learn if a particular product can produce the benefits of tea tree oil, request information from the manufacturer about studies supporting such a claim.
Some toothpastes contain tea tree oil. However, because the oil is dangerous if swallowed, only very small amounts are included. This makes the products safe, but essentially nullifies any bacteria-fighting benefits they claim to have.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with tea tree oil.
Possible Side Effects
Tea tree oil can irritate sensitive skin, especially in the vaginal area. It can also prompt an allergic reaction in some people. As a safety precaution, dab a small amount on your inner arm with a cotton swab before using the oil or a product that contains it. If you are allergic, your arm will quickly become red or inflamed.
Never ingest tea tree oil. It is for external use only, and should never be applied around the eyes.
If you accidentally ingest the oil, immediately contact a doctor or a poison control center.
Consult your doctor before replacing any prescription medications with tea tree oil.
Acne Apply a drop or two to each acne lesion 3 times a day.
Athlete’s Foot Apply oil or cream to affected areas twice a day and/or use as a footbath.
Cuts and Scrapes Apply cream to wound 3 times a day in place of aloe or lavender oil.
David Edelberg, MD