What Is Tea Tree Oil and What Are the Benefits?
Tea tree oil is touted as a cure-all for everything from athlete's foot to cancer. If you're wondering whether it will help you, the answer is that it can't hurt to try.
But it's also important to note that tea tree oil isn't approved for the treatment of any condition or illness. "Essential oils support the body in many ways," says Jessica Herzog, M.D., medical director of Turnpaugh Health and Wellness Centerin Mechanicsburg, PA. But, she adds, "only FDA-approved medications can 'treat' a condition."
Master aromatherapist and educator Jimm Harrison echoes that sentiment: "Don't expect oils to work as if they were drugs. They are not drugs, though they have pharmacological, drug-like, properties."
Although it should never be a substitute for conventional treatments for serious illnesses, tea tree oil is safe when used topically and inexpensive compared to some other over-the-counter treatments.
What Is Tea Tree Oil?
Tea tree oil, also called melaleuca oil, is derived from the leaves of the tea tree native to Australia. Australian aborigines would crush the leaves and apply the oil to cuts and skin infections, and Australian soldiers in World War I used it as a disinfectant.
Tea tree oil is created through distillation. The leaves are steamed, which causes tiny glands of oil to burst. The oil rises with the vapor and is then extracted into its pure form. It's available as 100-percent undiluted oil, or you can find it diluted or mixed with other oils. It's also an ingredient in many natural products, including soaps, lotions, mouthwash, shampoos and cleaning products.
Benefits of Tea Tree Oil
The active ingredient in tea tree oil is terpinen-4-ol, comprising up to 43 percent of its chemical composition. Terpinen-4-ol is known for its antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. This may be due, in part, to terpinen-4-ol's ability to stimulate white blood cells, the immune system cells responsible for protecting the body against disease and infection from foreign substances.
These properties make it a good essential oil to keep on hand. "Melaleuca oil is a common go-to oil in my home and practice because it has such a wide variety of applications," says, Dr. Herzog. While the benefits of tea tree oil seem limitless, only a handful are supported by scientific evidence. Here are the top tried-and-true uses for tea tree oil.
1. Acne Treatment
Tea tree oil is becoming a common ingredient in all-natural acne products — and for good reason. It's antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties can help fight acne-causing bacteria and reduce the redness and inflammation of a break out.
A 2017 study published in Australasian Journal of Dermatology reported that using a tea tree oil face wash and applying tea tree oil gel to the face twice daily for 12 weeks significantly improved mild to moderate acne.
It's important to use a therapeutic amount of tea tree oil when you're trying to resolve acne. Too little and you may not see any improvement; too much and you may make the problem worse. In a 2007 study in the Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology, a five-percent tea tree oil gel produced good results and was well-tolerated.
2. Wound Healing
Initial reports of the antimicrobial activity of tea tree oil were published in the 1920s, revealing the oil to be 11 times more effective than phenol, a toxic chemical widely used as a disinfectant at the time.
Scientists are still studying the effects of tea tree oil in wound treatment with "striking" results, according to the authors of a small 2013 study published in Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Researchers compared wound-healing duration of 10 volunteer participants using either conventional treatment or conventional treatment and tea tree fumes and observed significantly decreased healing time in all but one of the tea tree oil treatment group compared to the control group.
According to Dr. Herzog, the best way to apply tea tree oil is in a carrier oil, such as fractionated coconut oil. "Essential oils are aromatic compounds. They quickly 'flash off,' or go into the air where we can smell them. Dilution in a carrier oil limits flash off and keeps more of the essential oil on the skin, which is helpful when wanting to target skin issues," says Dr. Herzog, who is also a member of the dōTERRA Medical Advisory Board.
"If you have tolerated melaleuca before and don't have sensitive skin then, yes, 'neat' or full strength is fine for an adult — but dilution is still recommended since it would limit flash off."
3. Oily Skin Treatment
Excessive oil production can lead to shiny skin that's prone to enlarged pores and acne. This can make the application of cosmetics and sunscreen difficult. Because tea tree oil has astringent properties, it may be effective at removing excess oil from the skin so that products can be applied more easily and last longer, according to a 2016 study in Journal of Dermatology Research and Therapy.
Researchers combined the "great solvent and penetrating power" of tea tree oil and with the UV-protective properties of the antioxidant compound resveratrol and developed a product that effectively reduced sebum production while providing moderate protection from UV rays.
You can find several tea tree oil toners and lotions on the market made for oily skin. You can also combine a small amount with witch hazel to make your own toner or add a little to your favorite lotion. Because tea tree oil can be overly drying, it's best to start with a very small amount once daily to see how your skin reacts.
4. Mouthwash for Gingivitis
Tea tree oil offers an all-natural alternative to soothe the pain and bleeding associated with gingivitis. A 2014 study in Oral & Implantology found tea tree oil to be a more effective mouthwash to reduce inflammation and bleeding in participants with gingivitis than mouthwash containing chlorhexidine, a common chemical compound used in commercial mouthwashes. Although tea tree oil was not as effective at reducing plaque as the chlorhexidine rinse, researchers concluded it is a valuable non-toxic addition to gingivitis treatment.
You can buy a mouthwash containing tea tree oil at most health food stores, or you can make one at home by combining the oil with spring water, baking soda and peppermint oil. Do not swallow the mouth wash as tea tree oil is poisonous when ingested.
Other Uses of Tea Tree Oil
Research is limited for other therapeutic uses. But there's a small amount of evidence that tea tree oil could be useful for:
- Contact dermatitis
- Athlete's foot
- Cold sores
- Nail fungus
- Insect bites
Its antibacterial properties make tea tree oil a common ingredient in all-natural deodorants and household cleaners, and its antifungal activity may make it an eco-friendly alternative for preserving fruits and vegetables, according to a 2013 study in Journal of Applied Microbiology. Some people have reported that tea tree oil can repel mosquitos and ticks, but there's no scientific evidence to support its use.
Tea tree oil is often used in aromatherapy, but there isn't much evidence that breathing in the vapors of essential oils has any effect other than aiding relaxation. Some people advocate using tea tree oil in aromatherapy to relieve chest congestion and cough and fight cold and flu. But no research has been done on inhaling tea tree oil, and there's a risk of allergic reaction.
Researchers have begun to explore tea tree's potential role in skin cancer treatment. One 2012 study published in the Journal of Dermatologic Sciencefound that when applied to solid tumors below the skin in rats, tea tree oil inhibited tumor growth and caused tumor regression in one day. In three days, the tumors were undetectable. And a 2017 review article in Cancer Therapy & Oncology suggests that tea tree oil may be effective as an adjunct to chemotherapy drugs, but more research is needed.
Dangers of Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil is considered safe for topical application, but some precautions should still be taken. "My suggestion, which I have for all essential oils, is to use them at low concentration and in moderation," says Harrison. "Tea tree is a complex oil that is not always predictable."
People have reported reactions to topical use of tea tree oil including dryness, swelling, itching, stinging and burning. Since different people will react in different ways to tea tree oil, it's a good idea to start out using it conservatively. Try a patch test with diluted oil before slathering it all over your face. If you experience any uncomfortable symptoms, discontinue use of the product.
Tea tree oil is only considered safe when used topically. As previously mentioned, it 's poisonous when swallowed, according to National Capital Poison Control. (In fact, they don't recommend using it as a mouthwash, even though scientific studies support its use for that purpose.) If you choose to use it as a mouthwash, do not swallow it. Poison Control reports that ingesting just one teaspoon of tea tree oil can cause side effects of dizziness, vomiting and slurred speech in one reported case. If you do swallow tea tree oil, contact Poison Control.
Tea tree oil should be used sparingly with children. "When using melaleuca on a child, it is recommended to dilute well with a carrier oil, such as fractionated coconut oil or olive oil, and apply a small amount topically to the affected area," says Dr. Herzog. "Most concerns about essential oil use are reflected in skin irritations, and this can be avoided with generous diluting.'