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tea tree oil

What Is It?
Health Benefits
Forms

Dosage Information

Guidelines for Use

General Interaction

Possible Side Effects

Cautions

References

Evidence Based Rating Scale 

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, aromatic oil with a fragrance reminiscent of nutmeg is steam-distilled from the Melaleuca leaves. Because Melaleuca alternifolia grows only in Australia, the country is now the major source of tea tree oil, exporting some 700 tons annually. Tea tree products are often referred to as "melaleuca oil." The pure oil is colorless to pale yellow. 

Health Benefits 

High-quality tea tree oil contains 40% or more of terpinen-4-ol, the ingredient that fights harmful bacteria and fungi, making the oil effective in preventing and fighting infection. Tea tree oil may be useful in promoting the healing of damaged skin, such as with acne, cuts, scrapes, insect bites, and stings, as well as combating fungi and viruses that cause minor skin conditions. 

Specifically, tea tree oil may help to:

  • 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 properties. In one study conducted in Australia in 1990, 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 in the surrounding skin. (1) A 2007 randomized, double-blind study of 60 patients also indicated efficacy in patients with mild to moderate acne. The patients were treated with either 5% tea tree oil gel or placebo for 45 days. At the end of treatment, the tea tree oil group showed significant decreases in the number of acne lesions and in the severity of acne compared to the control group. (2) However, larger studies are needed to establish efficacy.

  • Fight fungal infections such as 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. A 1992 study found 10% tea tree oil cream to be as effective as conventional treatments in relieving symptoms of athlete's foot, including burning, inflammation, itching, and scaling. At this concentration, the tea tree oil cream was no more effective than placebo in curing the fungus that caused the condition. (3) Further studies found that 25% to 50% tea tree oil solution improves symptoms and combats the fungus in 48% to 50% of patients with athlete's foot after four weeks of treatment. (4) However, the same tea tree oil concentrations were not as effective as the conventional medications clotrimazole or terbinafine in curing athlete's foot. (5) More research is needed to clarify efficacy.

  • 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. (6, 7) In these ways, tea tree oil, presumably, not only lessens the chance of infection, it also promotes healing and reduces the likelihood of scarring. Several natural medicine sources tout these benefits of tea tree oil to promote healing and prevent scarring. (8-10) However, clinical studies evaluating tea tree oil for this use are limited and not convincing. In one preliminary study in 2008, Aloe vera, saliva and tea tree oil applied to burns for 20 minutes each significantly decreased skin temperature, but the treatments did not improve healing, scar strength, scar depth, or cosmetic appearance of the scar after six weeks of continued treatment. (11) More research is needed to determine efficacy.

  • Shorten the course of vaginal yeast infections. Candida albicans, the organism that most often causes these discomforts, apparently succumbs to the actions of tea tree oil. These properties of tea tree oil have been demonstrated in several laboratory studies and trials in animals. (12-17) Aroma therapists recommend soaking a tampon in a combination of tea tree and sweet almond oil. However, studies in humans would be needed to determine appropriate concentrations, duration of use to rate tea tree oil for this purpose.

  • 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 the study, 126 men and women with mild to moderate dandruff used either 5% tea tree oil shampoo or placebo daily for four weeks. The treatment group showed significant improvement in overall severity, as well as symptoms such as itchiness and greasiness compared to the control group. And the tea tree oil was well tolerated among patients, producing no adverse effects. (18) More studies are needed to confirm or refute this preliminary evidence. A laboratory analysis of tea-tree chemistry discovered substances that can kill head lice. (19) And in a clinical trial using an herbal lice removal shampoo containing combined extracts of paw paw, thymol, and tea tree oil, the shampoo demonstrated 100% effectiveness in removing head lice in 16 participants. (20) While a study evaluating the effectiveness of tea tree oil and other herbs in the prevention of head lice indicated tea tree oil as offering the most repellence of head lice, none of the herbs tested alone showed sufficient preventative efficacy. (21) More research is needed to determine efficacy in the prevention and treatment of head lice, 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 Human Papilloma Viruses. In one case study, tea tree oil applied topically once daily to hand warts for 12 days was effective in eliminating the warts and repairing the skin. (22) More research is needed to determine whether the oil is truly effective for this purpose, but it does not seem to cause any complications.

  • Combat fungal nail infections. Some studies have shown applying a 100% tea tree oil solution topically twice a day for six months cures toenail infections in about 18% of patients. Another 56% of patients report improved nail appearance and symptoms after three months and 60% of patients report the same improvements after six months, which is comparable to results after using conventional treatments with a 1% clotrimazole solution. (23) However, lower concentrations of tea tree oil were not as effective. (24) More research is needed to determine efficacy. 

Forms

  • suppository
  • oil
  • gel
  • cream  

Dosage Information 

Special tip:

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 block the oil's active ingredients from providing therapeutic benefit. 

  • For acne: Apply a drop or two to each acne lesion three times 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 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 vaginal yeast infections: Use a tea tree oil vaginal suppository, available at health-food outlets, every 12 hours for up to five days.

  • For nail infections: Rub tea tree oil on the nail twice a day.

  • For hair problems: For dandruff, wash hair once daily with 5% tea tree oil shampoo; for head lice, wash head once daily with herbal head lice shampoo containing tea tree oil.

  • 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 that 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. 

General Interaction 

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 children and 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. An allergic reaction will cause skin to become red or inflamed. 

Cautions 

  • Never ingest tea tree oil. It is for external use only and should never be applied around the eyes.

  • If the oil is accidentally ingested, immediately contact a doctor or a poison control center.

  • Consult a doctor before replacing any prescription medications with tea tree oil.

References

1. Bassett IB, Pannowitz DL, Barnetson RS. A comparative study of tea-tree oil versus benzoyl peroxide in the treatment of acne. Med J Aust. 1990;153:455-8.
2. Enshaieh S, Jooya A, Siadat AH, Iraji F. The efficacy of 5% topical tea tree oil gel in mild to moderate acne vulgaris: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 2007 Jan-Feb;73(1):22-5.
3. Tong MM, Altman PM, Barnetson RS. Tea tree oil in the treatment of tinea pedis. Australas J Dermatol. 1992;33:145-9.
4. Satchell AC, Saurajen A, Bell C, Barnetson RS. Treatment of interdigital tinea pedis with 25% and 50% tea tree oil solution: a randomized, placebo-controlled, blinded study. Australas J Dermatol. 2002;43:175-8.
5. Martin KW, Ernst E. Herbal medicines for treatment of fungal infections: a systematic review of controlled clinical trials. Mycoses 2004;47:87-92.
6. Carson CF, Riley TV. The antimicrobial activity of tea tree oil. Med J Aust. 1994;160:236.
7. Hammer KA, Carson CF, Riley TV. Susceptibility of transient and commensal skin flora to the essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree oil). Am J Infect Control. 1996;24:186-9.
8. Molly's Herbals. Tea Tree Oil. http://fiascofarm.com/herbs/teatree.htm. Accessed August 11, 2009.
9. Herbs2000.com. Tea Tree Oil. http://www.herbs2000.com/disorders/cuts.htm. Accessed August 11, 2009.
10. Ed. Kalyn, W. The Healing Power of Vitamins, Minerals and Herbs: The A-Z guide to enhancing your health and treating illness with nutritional supplements. Reader's Digest Association. 1999, p. 364-5.
11. Cuttle L, Kempf M, Kravchuk O, et al. The efficacy of Aloe vera, tea tree oil and saliva as first aid treatment for partial thickness burn injuries. Burns. 2008 Dec;34(8):1176-82.
12. Hammer KA, Carson CF, Riley TV. In-vitro activity of essential oils, in particular Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil and tea tree oil products, against Candida spp. J Antimicrob Chemother. 1998 Nov;42(5):591-5.
13. Banes-Marshall L, Cawley P, Phillips CA. In vitro activity of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil against bacterial and Candida spp. isolates from clinical specimens. Br J Biomed Sci. 2001;58(3):139-45.
14. Ergin A, Arikan S. Comparison of microdilution and disc diffusion methods in assessing the in vitro activity of fluconazole and Melaleuca alternifoloia (tea tree) oil against vaginal Candida isolates. J Chemother. 2002 Oct;14(5):465-72.
15. Mondello F, De Bernardis F, Girolamo A, et al. In vitro and in vivo activity of tea tree oil against azole-susceptible and -resistant human pathogenic yeasts. J Antimicrob Chemother. 2003 May;51(5):1223-9.
16. Mondello F, De Bernardis F, Girolamo A, et al. In vivo activity of terpinen-4-ol, the main bioactive component of Melaleuca alternifolia Cheel (tea tree) oil against azole-susceptible and -resistent human pathogenic Candida species. BMC Infect Dis. 2006 Nov 3;6:158.
17. Maruyama N, Takizawa T, Ishibashi H, et al. Protective activity of geranium oil and its component, geraniol, in combination with vaginal washing against vaginal candidiasis in mice. Biol Pharm Bull. 2008 Aug;31(8):1501-6.
18. Satchell AC, Saurajen A, Bell C, Barnetson RS. Treatment of dandruff with 5% tea tree oil shampoo. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2002 Dec;47(6):852-5.
19. Veal L. The potential effectiveness of essential oils as a treatment for headlice, Pediculus humanus capitis. Complement Ther Nurs Midwifery. 1996 Aug;2(4):97-101.
20. McCage CM, Ward SM, Paling CA, et al. Development of a paw paw herbal shampoo for the removal of head lice. Phytomedicine. 2002 Dec;9(8):743-8.
21. Canyon DV, Speare R. A comparison of botanical and synthetic substances commonly used to prevent head lice (Pediculus humanus var. capitis) infestation. Int J Dermatol. 2007 Apr;46(4):422-6.
22. Millar BC, Moore JE. Successful topical treatment of hand warts in a pediatric patient with tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia). Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2008 Nov;14(4):225-7.
23. Buck DS, Nidorf DM, Addino JG. Comparison of two topical preparations for the treatment of onychomycosis: Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) oil and clotrimazole. J Fam Pract. 1994;38:601-5.
24. Syed TA, Qureshi ZA, Ali SM, et al. Treatment of toenail onychomycosis with 2% butenafine and 5% Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil in cream. Trop Med Int Health. 1999;4:284-7.

Evidence Based Rating Scale

The Evidence Based Rating Scale is a tool that helps consumers translate the findings of medical research studies and what our clinical advisors have found to be efficacious in their personal practice into a visual and easy to interpret format. This tool is meant to simplify the information on supplements and therapies that demonstrate promise in the treatment of certain conditions.

 

Condition

Rating

Explanation

 

Acne

   

Some studies indicate efficacy in reducing number of lesions and severity of acne. More research is needed to confirm or refute efficacy. (1, 2))

Athlete's foot  


Studies indicate efficacy of 10% solutions in improving symptoms and of 25% to 50% solutions combating the fungus that causes athlete's foot. (3-5)

 

Burns  


Preliminary evidence indicates efficacy to reduce skin temperature but no efficacy in improving wound healing or scarring. More research is needed to determine efficacy. (11)

 

Cuts and scrapes  

Preliminary laboratory evidence indicates potential efficacy to prevent infection and scarring and to promote healing. Traditional medicine indicates history of use for cuts and scrapes. R
Date Published: 04/19/2005

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