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Tea Tree Oil Uses and Benefits You Shouldn’t Take for Granted

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tea tree oil

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  • Tea tree oil has long been valued for its antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties, and is now infused in many personal care products such as soaps, shampoos and lotions
  • Home uses of tea tree oil include indoor mold treatment and as a natural pest control and insect repellent
  • Aside from being used in aromatherapy to help relieve respiratory ailments, tea tree oil may also be used to minimize acne, fungal and bacterial infections, dandruff, lice, gingivitis and genital infections

Tea tree oil is practical and inexpensive, and has many uses for your health and around the home — no wonder it continues to gain recognition among nature's herbal oils.1,2 Here's what you need to know about tea tree oil.

What Is 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 Australia.3,4 The name was coined by British explorer Capt. James Cook, when he saw native Australians brewing tea using the leaves from the tree.5 The tea tree plant was widely used by the Australian aboriginal people to treat various ailments, including coughs, colds, sore throats and skin conditions.6

However, while tea tree oil was well-known in native Australian communities, its commercial production only started after Penfold included tea tree in his survey of Australian essential oils.

It is also rumored that this essential oil was deemed so important that soldiers during World War II were regularly given supplies of it as part of their kits.7 Today, through modern distillation methods, manufacturers are now able to produce tea tree oil with a clear to pale yellow color and a fresh, minty, camphor-like scent.8,9

How to Use Tea Tree Oil at Home

Tea tree oil has been long valued for its antifungal, antibacterial, antiprotozoal and antiviral properties.10 In 1925, tea tree oil was first distilled and promoted for its possible use as an antiseptic agent in surgery.11 It was believed to be 10 times more powerful than carbolic acid, one of the oldest antiseptic agents.12,13

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 and shampoos.14 It has many uses around the home, too, including:

Mold treatment — Two studies showed the effect of tea tree oil in various concentrations in fighting off molds and fungal contaminations in building materials. In a 2005 study from The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, TTO was found to inhibit fungal growth in ceiling tiles and sheetrock squares.15 A 2004 study also showed tea tree oil’s inhibitory effect on yeast and bacteria in indoor environments.16

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.17 I recommend making a natural insect repellent by mixing a few drops of tea tree oil with coconut oil.

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Composition of Tea Tree Oil

There are over 100 components in tea tree oil, but it is mostly made up of terpene hydrocarbons: monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes and their alcohols.18 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.19

3 Health Benefits of Tea Tree Oil

Tea tree oil has gained a reputation for being a useful and beneficial herbal oil, from repelling insects to helping alleviate warts.20,21 Numerous studies have been conducted to prove the potential benefits of tea tree oil for health conditions, such as helping:

  • Minimize acne — A 1990 comparative study published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that TTO, similar to benzoyl peroxide, may help minimize acne lesions. Although the onset of action in tea tree oil was slower, it caused fewer side effects than benzoyl peroxide.22
  • Ease fungal infections — A 2002 study published in the Tropical Medicine and International Health Journal found that 2% butenafine hydrochloride and 5% TTO combined in cream may help mitigate toenail onychomycosis, a condition that destroys the whole nail through a fungal infection.23
  • Eliminate harmful bacteria — A 2008 study found that TTO, in the form of body wash, may help mitigate methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a kind of bacteria that may affect the bloodstream, lungs, heart and bones if an infection is left untreated.24,25

Smaller-scale clinical studies on tea tree oil revealed its potential for helping minimize the effects of dandruff, lice, gingivitis and genital infections.26,27,28,29 In aromatherapy, tea tree oil is known for helping alleviate respiratory problems, including tuberculosis, cough, bronchitis, asthma and whooping cough.30

How Does Tea Tree Oil Work?

Tea tree oil’s high terpene content is responsible for its antibacterial, antifungal and antiseptic effects.31,32 According to Dr. Aurora DeJuliis, a dermatologist and aesthetician based in New Jersey, terpene is a type of volatile oil known to destroy bacteria.33

However, I advise you to use tea tree oil with caution — it's meant to be used topically.34 Some dental products do contain tea tree oil, but these are generally safe, as they are not ingested.35

Like many other herbal and essential oils, using tea tree oil at full strength may cause skin irritation and contact dermatitis, which is why it should be diluted with carrier oils and other materials, such as gels and creams.36 Different treatment options also call for different percentages of tea tree oil. For example, acne treatments only require 5% TTO.37 For fungal infections, a concentration between >0.03% and 8% may be used.38

Is Tea Tree Oil Safe?

The answer is yes, as long as it is applied topically in appropriate doses and not swallowed. While tea tree oil is considered safe and does not cause any adverse reactions, some people may experience skin irritation, itching, stinging and burning. You should try applying diluted tea tree oil on a small patch of skin to see if any of these occur.39 Avoid using undiluted tea tree oil and make sure you dilute it with carrier oils, such as coconut, jojoba, sesame and almond oils.40

It is also recommended that you steer clear from oxidized oils, especially ones that contain linalool. Linalool is a common terpene found in essential oils and is typically nonallergenic. However, it autoxidizes once exposed to air and may cause contact dermatitis if applied topically.41

Potential Risks of Tea Tree Oil

Do not swallow or ingest tea tree oil because it’s toxic when ingested. Some possible effects of tea tree ingestion include confusion, ataxia (loss of muscle control) and loss of consciousness.42 If you are allergic to eucalyptol, use TTO with caution, as tea tree oil contains varying amounts of 1,8-cineol.43

Like many essential oils, tea tree oil is toxic to pets if ingested or inhaled. Dogs and cats have been observed to suffer from depression, weakness and muscle tremors when exposed to tea tree oil.44

+ Sources and References