Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil, also known as melaleuca oil, is an essential oil produced by processing of the tea tree’s leaves. Prior to modern use, the leaves of the tea tree had been used by indigenous people of Australia. The leaves were used to make teas for the treatment of colds and other ailments, as well as poultices which took advantage of the tea tree’s antifungal and antiseptic properties.
Modern scientific research beginning in the 1920s focused on the antimicrobial effects of the oil extracted from the tea tree leaves. Positive results from this early research initiated the development of tea tree oil distillation and the commercial viability of the product. Tea tree oil production and availability has sparked in recent decades, presumably as a result of desire from the general public for more natural products.
Commercially, tea tree oil is produced when leaves harvested from the Melaleuca plant (the tea tree) are distilled. When production first began, stills were set up in the bush to distill leaves collected from wild tea trees. Modern methods involve dedicated tea tree farms. While equipment may have modernized and grown to economy of scale operations, the process by which tea tree oil is extracted remains a simple distillation method.
International standards dictate a concentration of 30% to 48% terpinen-4-ol in tea tree oil, the component that gives the oil its antimicrobial properties.
Tea tree oil is marketed for a variety of uses, many of which have been verified through scientific research since the first studies began in the 1920s. Blanket statements referencing tea tree oil as a “cure all” or “miracle oil” should be taken with a grain of salt. Generally, tea tree oil is labeled as an effective antimicrobial and antifungal agent.
Tea tree oil has long been touted as an effective remedy for the treatment of acne. Studies have shown that a solution of 5% tea tree oil is as effective as the more commonly prescribed benzoyl peroxide solution. While tea tree oil by comparison takes longer to work, there appears to be fewer complications for persons with sensitive skin.
The National Institutes of Health credits the use of tea tree oil as an effective treatment for fungal infections in toe and fingernails. A twice daily application of 100% tea tree oil to the affected areas showed elimination of fungus in 18% of cases, and overall improvement in the majority of cases.
According to studies, those suffering from athlete’s foot will benefit from a daily application of 25% to 50% tea tree oil concentration. The treatment was effective in eliminating the infection after four weeks of treatment in 50% of patients.
Tea tree oil, like many other naturopathic or homeopathic remedies, has many adherents who claim a wide range of effective uses for the essential oil. However, many of the claims lack any verification to back them up, and are based on anecdotal evidence and speculation. The following list encompasses some of these claims:
- Lice, scabies and ringworm – There is some evidence to suggest that tea tree oil as a topical solution has proven effective in treating parasites and fungal infections.
- Cold sores – Studies have shown no significant improvement in cold sores treated with tea tree oil.
- Preventing infection in cuts, scrapes and burns – While the anti-septic qualities of tea tree oil are evident, more research needs to be done to confirm effective use as an antibiotic topical treatment.
- Yeast infections – Studies have shown some efficacy in treatment of yeast infections of the throat and mouth in AIDS patients. Additionally, vaginal infections have shown positive response to tea tree oil.
The list of claims goes on from plausible to ridiculous. Some companies’ entire product lines are based on the inclusion of tea tree oil as an active ingredient. Tea tree oil is found in a wide range of household products, including cleaners, detergents, toothpastes and skin care products.
It is important to remember to seek a doctor’s opinion before proceeding with any new treatment options.
For the most part, topical application on the skin has no significant side effects. Use for acne treatment can occasionally cause redness, itching or dryness.
Tea tree oil when mixed with lavender and used by adolescent boys has been documented to cause abnormal breast growth, known as gynecomastia. Discontinue use if symptoms are noticed and contact a medical professional.
Tea tree oil, when applied to the skin, has shown allergic reactions in rare cases. Reactions usually involve rashes, and swelling and itching of the affected area. Symptoms are generally mild.
Tea tree oil should not be swallowed. Ingestion of tea tree oil can lead to symptoms ranging from confusion to coma. Contact your local poison control centre if tea tree oil is accidentally ingested.