The use of tea tree oil for medicinal purposes dates back centuries. Eastern Australia aboriginals discovered the oil from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia plant could treat a wide variety of ailments including skin cuts, burns, infections, and sore throats. This powerful traditional medicine even holds up to modern science. Tea tree oil contains organic chemicals called terpenoids which have antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic, and antimicrobial qualities. Many claim topical application can cure almost anything from athlete’s foot to yeast infections to head lice. However, the recent buzz surrounding tea tree oil is about its ability to treat acne.
With its antibacterial and immunostimulant properties, tea tree oil boosts the body’s natural defenses while fighting pathogens. This makes tea tree oil especially useful in treating bacterial infections of the sebaceous glands, otherwise known as acne. The first clinical study of tea tree oil’s treatment of acne was conducted in 1990 by the Department of Dermatology at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in New South Wales. Researchers compared the effectiveness of 5% tea tree oil and 5% benzoyl peroxide (the most common agent in acne treatment) in 124 people. Over three months, they found both treatments “had a significant effect in ameliorating the patients’ acne by reducing the number of inflamed and noninflamed lesions.” While the tea tree oil had a slower onset of action, it was found to have far fewer negative side effects than benzoyl peroxide. Seventy-nine percent of patients who used benzoyl peroxide experienced itching, stinging, burning, or dryness. Other than a few mild allergic reactions, patients’ negative reactions to tea tree oil were negligible.
A 2007 study conducted by the Department of Dermatology in Iran had similar findings. One group received 5% tea tree oil while the other group was given a placebo. After 45 days, researchers determined the tea tree oil significantly reduced the number and severity of acne lesions. A smaller scale study in 2002 by the British Journal of Dermatology also concluded tea tree oil works as an anti-inflammatory agent against acne.
Like all acne treatments, tea tree oil will not work for everyone. Use of all essential oils including tea tree oil is not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. People with eczema or sensitive skin should be cautious when using tea tree oil. The risk of developing an allergic dermatitis from tea tree oil is rare; however, discontinue tea tree oil use if prolonged negative side effects occur. Most importantly, tea tree oil is toxic when swallowed and should be kept safely away from children and pets.