Practical, inexpensive, and has many uses for your health and around the home — no wonder tea tree oil continues to gain recognition among nature's herbal oils.1 Here's what you need to know about tea tree oil.
Tea tree oil (TTO), also called melaleuca oil, is made from the leaves of the tea tree plant (Melaleuca alternifolia), a member of the myrtle tree family, which is native to eastern Australia.2 The name was coined by British explorer Capt. James Cook in the 1770s when he saw native Australians brewing tea using the leaves from the tree.3 Later on, he gave it to his crew to help alleviate scurvy.4
The tea tree plant is highly prized by primitive Australian communities for its unique healing ability. Numerous indigenous communities along the east coast of Australia have a long historical use of tea tree as an antiseptic for skin conditions. They simply crushed the tea tree leaves and applied them to cuts, burns and infections.
It was only in the 1920s, after Arthur Penfold, an Australian chemist, published research on tea tree oil's antiseptic properties that this oil's benefits became widely known.5 Through modern distillation methods, manufacturers are now able to produce tea tree oil with a clear to pale yellow color,6 and a fresh, camphor-like scent.7
Tea tree oil has been long valued for its antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties.8 In the 1920s, it was used in dentistry and surgery as an antiseptic and was further used to help clean wounds and suppress infections during World War II.9 It was believed to be 13 times more effective than carbolic acid (an antimicrobial, anesthetic and itch-relieving agent),10 as presented by Dr. Penfold in his 1923 study.11
Tea tree oil has become more popular within the last few years, and is now added to personal care and cosmetic products such as skin and nail creams, soaps, shampoos and lotions.12 Tea tree oil has many uses around the home, too, including:
- Toothbrush cleaner — To disinfect your toothbrush, soak it in a glass of water with 10 drops of tea tree oil. Rinse after a few minutes.13
- Mold treatment — Add two drops of tea tree oil to a cup of water, transfer to a spray bottle, shake well and then spray on moldy areas such as shower walls. Do not rinse, and wait for a few days until the scent fades.14 For an all-natural disinfectant, you can also sprinkle a few drops of tea tree oil along with baking soda on your bathroom or kitchen surfaces.
- Natural pest control — Tea tree oil’s terpinen-4-ol content has insecticidal effects that may naturally repel flies and other insects.15 I recommend making a natural insect repellent by mixing a few drops of tea tree oil with coconut oil.
- Laundry freshener — Adding a few drops of this oil during the wash cycle may help remove the musty scent in your laundry, especially the towels.16
There are over 100 components in tea tree oil, but it is mostly made up of terpene hydrocarbons: monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes and their alcohols.17 Exposure to light and heat can affect TTO's stability, so make sure to place it in an airtight container and store it in a dark, cool and dry place.18
Tea tree oil has gained a reputation for being a useful and beneficial herbal oil, from removing makeup19to helping alleviate warts.20 Numerous studies have been conducted to prove the potential benefits of tea tree oil for health conditions, such as:
- Minimizing acne — A comparative study published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that TTO, similar to benzoyl peroxide, may help minimize acne lesions21 or hair follicles clogged with oil and dead skin cells.22 Although the onset of action in tea tree oil was slower, it caused fewer side effects than benzoyl peroxide.23
- Easing fungal infections — A study published in the Tropical Medicine and International Health Journal found that 2 percent butenafine hydrochloride and 5 percent TTO combined in cream may help mitigate toenail onychomycosis.24
- Eliminating harmful bacteria — A 2008 study found that TTO, in the form of body wash, may help mitigate methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA),25 a kind of bacteria that causes sepsis, pneumonia, and bloodstream and skin infections.26
Smaller-scale clinical studies on tea tree oil revealed its potential for helping minimize the effects of dandruff,27 lice,28 gingivitis29and genital infections.30
In aromatherapy, tea tree oil is known to be helpful in alleviating chest and nasal congestion, stuffy nose and other symptoms of colds and flu,31 especially when used via steam inhalation. It may help clear congested nasal passages, which may result in a more comfortable breathing.32
Just add two to three drops of TTO to a steaming bowl of purified water, cover your head with a towel and breathe in the vapors for five to 10 minutes. Adding a few drops of tea tree oil to a tissue and keeping it inside your pillow may also help you achieve a peaceful and relaxed sleep.33
Large-scale tea tree oil manufacturers use steam distillation to extract the product.34 But if you have fresh tea tree leaves on hand, you can easily make this oil infusion at home. Here's a step-by-step process from the book “101 Easy Homemade Products for Your Skin, Health and Home: A Nerdy Farm Wife's All-Natural DIY Projects Using Commonly Found Herbs, Flowers and Other Plants:”35
Tea Tree Oil Infusion
• Dried tea tree leaves
• Carrier oil such as rose hip seed oil, argan oil or jojoba oil
• Sanitized jar with lid (you may also use cheesecloth or coffee filter)
1. Put the dried leaves in a jar and fill with desired carrier oil.
2. Cover the jar and place it in a cool, dark area for four to six weeks.
3. Shake the jar occasionally.
You may use a cheesecloth or coffee filter as cover in place of the jar lid. Remember to secure it with a rubber band. Instead of keeping it in a cool and dark storage area, place the cloth-covered jar near a warm, sunny window and allow it to infuse for about three to five days.
For a stronger oil, leave the infusion for a few more weeks before using. Remember not to expose it under the heat of the sun for a prolonged period because it may affect the oil’s quality.36
According to studies, tea tree oil’s high terpene content is responsible for its antibacterial,37 antiseptic37 and antifungal effects.39 According to Dr. Aurora DeJuliis, a dermatologist and aesthetician based in New Jersey, terpene is a type of volatile oil known to destroy bacteria.40
However, I advise you to use tea tree oil with caution — it's meant to be used topically.41 Some dental products do contain tea tree oil, but these are generally safe, as they are not ingested.42
Like any other herbal and essential oil, using tea tree oil at full strength may cause skin irritation, which is why it is often diluted with carrier oils43 and other natural ingredients like raw honey or coconut oil. Different treatment options also call for different percentages of tea tree oil. For example, acne treatments only require 5 percent TTO.44 For fungal infections, a 20 percent TTO solution may be used.45
The answer is yes, as long as it is applied topically in appropriate doses and NOT swallowed. This oil may irritate your skin, especially if used for the first time. I recommend starting with low concentrations until you figure out your tolerance. Determine if you have an allergy to tea tree oil before using it by doing a skin test — apply a small amount to your inner arm to see if any reaction such as a rash or hives occurs.46
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) recommends avoiding oxidized oil, which has been exposed to air, because it may help trigger allergies more than fresh tea tree oil.47 Avoid using undiluted tea tree oil as well, and use tea tree oil-infused products instead to reduce your risk of skin irritation.48 Look for an all-natural topical product that incorporates tea tree oil in safe quantities.
Tea tree oil contains varying amounts of 1,8–cineole, a skin irritant that may cause allergic reactions in some individuals.49 Do not swallow or ingest tea tree oil, as it may cause mild to severe reactions such as diarrhea, stomachache,50 rashes, nausea and ataxia (loss of muscle control in the arms and legs).51
Tea tree oil may also be toxic to pets if ingested. Although its terpene content may help ward off bacteria and fungi, it may be toxic to pets when applied topically as it is absorbed rapidly into their body.52 If you are allergic to eucalyptol, use TTO with caution, as many formulas are mixed with eucalyptol.53