Facts About Tea Tree Oil

Overview

Tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) comes from the leaves of the evergreen Melaleuca tree, native to Australia and Asia. It is sold commercially in the U.S. in health food stores and online shops. Although tea tree oil has been proven effective as an alternative medicinal treatment, it contains a skin irritant that can cause mild rash to severe skin blistering. Perform a skin patch-test to determine if you are allergic to tea tree oil.

Origin

Aboriginal people in Australia harvested and processed the leaves of the Melaleuca tree to use as a treatment for skin infections and cuts. These native people crushed the leaves to release the tea tree oil and then applied them as a poultice directly to their skin.

Popularity

During World War I, the Australian government inadvertently popularized tea tree oil by giving it to its soldiers as a disinfectant. As noted in an article from the University of Michigan Health System, “Captain James Cook and his crew named the tree ‘tea tree’, using its leaves as a substitute for tea as well as to flavor beer.”

Topical Applications

Tea tree oil offers a variety of medicinal topical applications. Skin conditions caused by bacteria, virus and fungi all react to the active medicinal properties in tea tree oil. Use tea tree oil for a number of common skin ailments. The Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University says, “Tea tree oil is an effective treatment for…cold sores, the blisters of shingles and chicken pox, verrucae, warts, acne, large inflamed spots and nappy rash, fungal infections, such as ringworm, athlete’s foot and thrush, as well as dandruff–a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis.”

Chemical Makeup

Active chemical compounds make tea tree oil an effective alternative treatment as well as a skin irritant. Terpene alcohols are thought to be the germicidal element in tea tree oil. According to an article in the “Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy,” Staphylococcus aureus, resistant to methicillin, is susceptible to Terpinen-4-ol, one of the terpene alcohols.

The other known active compound in tea tree oil is the aromatic eucalyptol, a known skin irritant which is found in eucalyptus.

Acne Treatment

Tea tree oil has some of the same properties as the over-the-counter and prescription medication benzoyl peroxide and can be used to treat acne. “Like benzoyl peroxide, tea tree oil attacks bacteria and limits oil production, but without the adverse side effects such as itching, burning, or peeling,” according to the Brown University Health Education Program.

About this Author

Victoria Weinblatt graduated from Michigan State University with a B.S. in environmental and natural resource policy and is completing her master’s in TESOL at Shenandoah University. Weinblatt worked for five years as a nationally certified massage therapist in Seattle and Philadelphia. She earned her hatha yoga teacher certification from the Vijnana Kala Vedi Cultural Centre.