The essential oil has been used as a traditional medicine by Aborigines for centuries to treat everything from acne to athlete’s foot.
By Anna Bonet
Tea tree oil is an essential oil that has been used as a traditional medicine by Aborigines for centuries to treat a number of common health complaints including acne, dandruff and even as an insect repellent. Thanks to a number of proven health benefits, these days tea tree oil is available all over the world and comes in various forms including tinctures, creams, handwash and soaps.
What is tea tree oil?
Tea tree oil is an essential oil that originates from the Tea Tree plant- Melaleuca alternifolia – also known as the Paper Bark tree.
‘It was first discovered in 1732 by Captain James Cook, during his famous voyage around the world,’ says Dr Lee. ‘On arrival in Australia, he discovered the leaves of the tree could be brewed to make tea.’
‘Tea tree oil’s benefits are based on traditional herbal usage, having been used in Australia for over 100 years,’ agrees Kaura. ‘Now tea tree oil is widely available across the world in many forms.’
The forms tea tree oil can now come in include:
- Creams – to apply to the skin.
- Solutions – to apply to the skin and the scalp.
- Soaps – for the skin.
- Body spray – for the skin.
- Mouth wash – for the mouth and to treat halitosis.
- Toothpaste – for the mouth and to treat halitosis.
- Vaginal application – to treat vaginitis caused by recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis.
⚠️ Never apply tea tree oil directly to your skin. Dilute the oil with a carrier oil, such as olive oil, coconut oil, or almond oil before application and always do a patch test first to make sure your skin doesn’t react.
15 tea tree oil benefits and uses
Tea tree oil comes with a number of different health benefits and uses, including the following:
- Tea tree oil is antibacterial
Thanks to its antibacterial properties, tree oil can form the primary ingredient for hand washing products. ‘Tea tree oil works as an antibacterial agent by preventing cellular respiration – the ability to use oxygen for cellular processes – and disrupting cell membrane function,’ explains Dr Lee.
- Tea tree oil is anti-fungal
Tee tree oil is well known for its anti-fungal properties. ‘It prevents fungal growth by inhibiting the production of mycelia – the fine fungal branches which form the main growing structure of the fungus, as well as preventing the production of spores,’ says Dr Lee.
- Tea tree oil is an antiseptic
Tea tree oil is also widely used as an antiseptic. ‘It can be used for the treatment of small superficial wounds and insect bites,’ says Kaura.
- Tea tree oil can reduce your risk of viral infections
Tea tree oil not only has anti-fungal and antiseptic benefits, but studies are starting to show that it comes with anti-viral properties too. In fact, as Kaura says, ‘Tea-tree oil is thought to potentially have an anti-viral effect against influenza strains.‘
- Tea tree oil is anti-inflammatory
Tea tree oil has proven anti-inflammatory properties. ‘While research into the evidence of tea-tree oil is mixed, in some cases, tea-tree oil is thought to help reduce skin inflammation induced by histamines,’ says Kaura. ‘As such, tea tree oil is very commonly used in the beauty industry helping to reduce redness and inflammation associated with acneor sore skin after waxing.’
- Tea tree oil is an antioxidant
Tea tree oil has antioxidant properties, as it reduces the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) by white blood cells. ‘Antioxidants are imperative for human health as they counteract oxidative damage which is regularly occurring inside all the cells of the body, as part of cellular metabolism,’ says Dr Lee.
- Tea tree oil can be used as an anti-histamine
Antihistamines provide relief from sneezing, nasal congestion, and allergies and a recent study has found that topical tea tree oil can reduce histamine-induced skin inflammation.
‘Tea tee oil has an anti-oedema effect as it has an anti-histamine action and this helps reduce tissue swelling,’ says Dr Lee.
- Tea tree oil can be used as a hand wash
In one 2005 study, participants showed better eradication of bacteria (E.coli) after using a handwash containing 5% tea tree oil and 10% alcohol, or a 5% T solution in water, than from using a simple soap.
‘Hands were cleansed with the test solution for 60 seconds and rinsed for 15 seconds.’ says Dr Lee. ‘The tea tree oil preparation was safe and did not cause skin damage.’
- Tea tree oil can help treat of MRSA
Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) is a ‘super bug’ which causes wound infections and is resistant to many different antibiotics, but studies have suggested tea tree oil is effective in preventing it.
‘MRSA lives inside the nose, and on the skin, where it can multiply rapidly, become invasive and can spread to infect other people,’ says Dr Lee. ‘Preventing MRSA infection is a major healthcare priority, and various studies have suggested tea tree oil is effective in preventing the carriage of MRSA.’
- Tea tree oil relieves acne
Tea tree oil is effective in treating the bacteria which commonly cause acne – propionibacterium acnes (P.acnes) and as a result is frequently recommended by dermatologists, explains Dr Lee.
‘Tea tree oil also has a moisturising effect, whereas many other acne treatments have a drying effect on the skin,’ she says.
- Tea tree oil can treat athlete’s foot
Studies have found that tea tree oil could be an effective treatment for athlete’s foot.
‘One 2002 trial found that using a 25% tea tree oil formulation is as effective for treating athlete’s foot, as a 50% strength formulation,’ says Dr Lee.
- Tea tree oil helps with dandruff
Dandruff occurs when your scalp sheds white skin flakes, often associated with an itchy scalp, and Tea tree oil has been found to be effective in dandruff reduction.
‘In one 2002 study, 126 patients with dandruff were randomly allocated to either use tea tree oil shampoo or a placebo for 4 weeks,’ says Dr Lee. ‘At the end of the study, the tea tree oil group showed a 41% improvement compared to 11% in the placebo group.’
‘The tea tree oil group also reported less itching and greasiness,’ she adds.
- Tea tree oil can treat thrush
Researchers in one 2003 study looked at whether tea tree oil could be used as a treatment for oral candidiasis (thrush), with promising results. During the testing in the lab, they found that the oil was effective, and a follow-up test on rats confirmed these results.
- Tea tree oil can help heal genital herpes
Tea tea oil has been found to speed up ulcer recovery for people suffering from genital herpes.
‘In one small 2001 study, 18 patients with recurrent genital herpes used either a 6% TTO gel or a placebo on their genital ulcers,’ says Dr Lee. ‘At the end of the study, ulcers healed faster in the TTO group, being healed at 9 days, compared to 12.5 days in the placebo group.
‘However, other markers of infection such as viral titres, and the length of time viral cultures remained positive, were the same in both groups. ‘
- Tea tree oil can be used as a decongestant
If you have a cold or throat infection, Tea tree oil can be used to help with decongestion.
‘Adding tea-tree oil to boiling water and inhaling the steam through the nose or mouth for 10 minutes can help clear your sinuses and unblock your airways,’ says Kaura. ‘Traditional methods of use include pouring boiling water into a bowl before adding 2-3 drops of oil into the mix, followed by carefully breathing steam in and out.’
Tea tree oil side-effects
Tea tree oil applied topically to the skin has been found to be safe, but some people may experience a skin reaction, so always do a patch test before use.
‘Some users of tea tree oil may experience a skin reaction including irritation, itching and stinging,’ warns Kaura. ‘Alongside this, in rare cases, people have reported a burning sensation following use. If this occurs, you should stop using the product immediately and seek advice from your pharmacist or GP.’
‘Always apply tea tree oil with care,’ advises Dr Lee. ‘Dilute a few drops in a carrier oil first and dab a little onto a test patch of skin on your inner elbow first. Wait overnight to check for any skin reaction before applying it elsewhere on your body.’
If you develop side-effects from the use of tea tree oil or have a skin or anaphylactic reaction, always inform your GP and make sure this information is added to your medical record.
⚠️ Never ingest tea tree oil: swallowing undiluted essential oils can have serious side-effects including burning your mouth, gut lining, and even the digestive tract.
Who shouldn’t use tea tree oil?
While tea tree oil is generally considered to be safe to use for adults, the elderly and children over 12 years of age, it does come with some warnings.
‘Tea tree oil isn’t recommended for children under 12 or those who are pregnant or breastfeeding,’ advises Kaura.
‘It’s also important to note that it’s not advised for people use tea tree oil for more than one month at a time,’ she adds. ‘Tea tree oil brands can vary in strength, therefore always ensure you read the label and check usage instructions. If you are unsure, speak to your pharmacist.’
In general, it’s best to speak to your GP first if you have any chronic medical conditions or are taking other regular medication.
‘Do not use tea tee oil if you have eczema,’ says Dr Lee. ‘Exercise caution inhaling tea tree oil if you have asthma in case it precipitates an attack, and it should not be applied to burns.’