For centuries, Australian aborigines relied on the leaves of the tea tree to fight infections. Today, tea tree oil is valued throughout the world as a potent antiseptic, and scientists have confirmed its remarkable ability to combat harmful bacteria and fungal infections.
What it is?
A champion infection fighter, tea tree oil has a pleasant, nutmeg-like scent. It comes from the leaves of the tea tree, Melaleuca alternifolia, a species that grows only in Australia. Extracted by steam distillation, quality tea tree oil contains at least 40% terpinen-4-ol (the active ingredient that's responsible for its healing effects) and less than 5% cineole, a substance that's believed to counteract the medicinal properties of the oil. With the rise of antibiotics after World War II, tea tree oil fell out of favour. Recently, interest in it has revived, and more than 700 tonnes are now produced annually. (Tea tree is completely different from the Camellia species used to make black, oolong and green drinking teas.)
What it does?
Tea tree oil is used topically to treat a variety of common infections. Once applied to the skin, the oil makes it impossible for many disease-causing fungi to survive. Several studies have shown that it fights various bacteria as well, including some that are resistant to powerful antibiotics. Experts think one reason tea tree oil is so effective is that it mixes readily with skin oils, allowing it to attack the infective agent quickly and actively.
Tea tree oil's antiseptic properties are especially useful for treating cuts and scrapes, as well as insect bites and stings. The oil promotes healing of minor wounds, helps to prevent infection and minimizes any future scarring.
As an antifungal agent, tea tree oil fights the fungus Trichophyton, the culprit in athlete's foot, jock itch and some nail infections. It may also be effective against Candida albicans and Trichomonas vaginalis, two of the organisms that cause vaginal infections. Unfortunately, some fungal infections can be stubborn to treat; in these cases, your doctor may have to prescribe a more potent conventional antifungal medication.
Tea tree oil may be beneficial in the treatment of acne. In one study, a gel containing 5% tea tree oil was shown to be as effective against acne as a lotion with 5% benzoyl peroxide, the active ingredient in most over-the-counter acne medications. but there were fewer side effects with tea tree oil: it caused less scaling, drying and itching than the benzoyl peroxide formula. Another study found that a solution containing 0.5% tea tree oil offered protection against Pityrosporum ovale, a common dandruff-causing fungus. Tea tree oil is sometimes suggested as a treatment for warts, which are caused by viruses, though studies have not confirmed this use.
- Disinfects and promotes the healing of cuts and scrapes.
- Minimizes scarring.
- Speeds recovery from insect or spider bites and stings, including bee stings.
- Combats athlete's foot, fungal nail infections and yeast infections.
- Vaginal suppository.
- Tea tree oil is for topical use only. Do not ingest; it can be toxic. Keep it away from eyes.
- Consult your doctor before applying to deep, open wounds.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
To treat athlete's foot, skin wounds or nail infections: Apply a drop or two of pure, undiluted tea tree oil to affected areas of the skin or nails two or three times a day. Tea tree oil creams and lotions can also be used.
To treat vaginal yeast infections: Insert a commercially available tea tree oil vaginal suppository every 12 hours, for up to five days.
Guidelines for use:
Tea tree oil is for topical use only. Never take tea tree oil orally. If you or a child ingests it, call your doctor or a poison control centre immediately. Rarely, tea tree oil can cause an allergic skin rash in some people. Before using the oil for the first time, dab a small amount onto your inner arm with a cotton swab. If you are allergic, your arm will quickly become red or inflamed. If this response occurs, dilute the oil by adding a few drops to a tablespoon of bland oil, such as vegetable oil or almond oil, and try the arm test again. If you have no skin reaction, it's safe to apply the diluted oil elsewhere.
Possible side effects
Although tea tree oil can cause minor skin irritation, it otherwise appears to be safe for topical use. Like many herbal oils in pure, undiluted form, it can irritate the eyes and mucous membranes.
- A number of shampoos, soaps and other skin-care products contain tea tree oil, but many have such a small amount that they have little or no bacteria-fighting effect. Contact the manufacturer to find out if any studies on a product's effectiveness have been conducted.
- There is more than one type of tea tree, so when buying tea tree oil be sure it's derived from Melaleuca alternifolia. Oil from other species tends to be high in cineole content and doesn't have the same medicinal properties.
- In one recent test-tube study, tea tree oil (as well as peppermint, cinnamon leaf and nutmeg oils) was reported to contain substances that are toxic to head lice. Additional studies are needed on people before tea tree oil can be recommended to combat lice, particularly on children, who may be especially sensitive to this oil.
- Swiss researchers found that a special medical preparation of tea tree oil provides protection against cavity-forming bacteria in the mouth. But never use the pure oil in your mouth; it can be irritating and is dangerous if swallowed. Tea tree toothpastes are probably safe because they have so little oil – but for the same reason, they may have limited bacteria-fighting benefits.