- Tea tree oil is an essential oil that has a number of strong healing properties
- This oil has been shown to relieve symptoms associated with a wide range of inflammatory and bacterial skin disorders and conditions
- When diluted and used properly, tea tree oil can be a safe and effective alternative to over-the-counter and chemical-based medications
Tea tree oil is an essential oil prized for its medicinal properties. It’s widely used in complementary and alternative medicines, and can be found in a range of medicinal topicals and skin care products. This essential oil has powerful anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, making it ideal to help heal a number of skin disorders and conditions. How to use tea tree oil is important not only for best results but to avoid irritating your skin.
What Is Tea Tree Oil?
Tea tree oil is produced by steaming the leaves of the plant Melaleuca alternifolia, commonly known as the Australian tea tree. It was first used in traditional medicine more than 100 years ago as an antiseptic; but more recently has shown promise as a topical treatment to address a number of inflammatory skin conditions, including acne and eczema.
This oil can be purchased in its pure form or diluted, and is an added active ingredient in personal care products such as cleansers, toners, serums, moisturizers, shampoos and conditioners.
Benefits of Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil has a number of significant skin-healing qualities to treat a range of skin conditions.
- Anti-inflammatory: Terpinen-4-ol is the main component of this oil which has been demonstrated to suppress the inflammatory response
- Antibacterial: Best known as a potent antibacterial agent, tea tree oil can inhibit bacteria such as Escherichia coli, Haemophilus influenzae, Streptococcus pyogenes and Streptococcus pneumoniae
- Antiviral: This oil has antiviral properties which can be attributed to the effects of the terpinen-4-ol. In vitro studies have established activity against influenza virus subtype H1N1, and when combined with eucalyptus oil against the herpes simplex virus
- Antimicrobial: When skin is traumatized due to an injury or skin infection it is vulnerable to microbial infection. Tea tree oil has antimicrobial properties which kill infectious microbes by disrupting their permeability barrier, causing them to die
- Antifungal: Nearly all components identified within this oil have been found to have antifungal activity making it a strong choice in treating fungal infections such as athlete’s foot, nail infections and seborrheic dermatitis
- Antiseptic: In addition to providing antiviral benefits, Terpinen-4-ol effectively works as an antiseptic agent to inhibit or prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms on the skin and yeast infections in the oral cavity, such as Candida albicans
- Antioxidant: Tea tree oil has antioxidant activity to scavenge free radicals which prevents inflammation and skin damage, and speed ups wound healing
- Insecticidal: Tea tree oil has been shown to be effective against parasites such as head lice and bed bugs; it is also a natural mosquito repellent
Tea Tree Oil Uses
While there is a paucity of clinical studies on tea tree oil, there have been a number of in vitro tests performed that indicate this oil has a number of powerful medicinal properties and can effectively treat the following skin and scalp conditions.
Tea tree oil has demonstrated efficacy against mild-to-moderate facial acne. In one study examining the effects of a tea tree oil gel and face wash, both products were well tolerated and acne symptoms were significantly improved, with reduced lesion count.
In another study, this oil was found to be equally effective for mild-to-moderate acne symptoms as benzoyl peroxide – the gold standard of acne treatment. Of interest is that the patient adherence rate was much greater in those using the tea tree oil versus benzoyl peroxide which may have contributed to better outcomes.
Athlete’s foot is a contagious fungal infection that can also spread to toenails and hands. In one clinical study examining the efficacy of a 25% and 50% tea tree oil solution, there was a marked clinical response in 68% of the 50% tea tree oil group and 72% of the 25% oil group.
Eczema is an umbrella term that refers to chronic inflammatory skin conditions that cause dry, itchy irritated skin. Atopic and contact dermatitis both fall within this category.
The terpinen-4-ol compound found within this oil provides strong anti-inflammatory properties to relieve eczema-associated swelling, redness and irritation. As an antibacterial agent, it can reduce the risk of infection when raw, open sores develop.
In one study comparing several traditional topical agents against inflammation and contact dermatitis, researchers found tea tree oil was the most effective anti-eczematic agent.
Researchers have established that a 1% tea tree oil solution can kill 100% of head lice within 30 minutes. This is a valuable finding as louse resistance is increasing to established insecticidal compounds; tea tree oil offers a natural effective insecticidal solution that can overcome this treatment barrier.
Psoriasis is a chronic autoimmune disorder that is characterized by raised red scaly patches on the scalp and skin. While studies are lacking, there are ongoing discussions in the scientific community that this oil would be a beneficial treatment.
Due to tea tree oil’s strong anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties, it could be an option to alleviate these uncomfortable symptoms and be a novel potential agent against psoriasis.
Rosacea is an inflammatory skin disorder that is characterized by flushing and redness of the face due to dilated blood vessels beneath the skin. It’s accompanied by uncomfortable sensations of stinging, itching and burning.
Demodex mites are microscopic parasites that live within hair follicles and their presence is entirely normal. However, studies have found that those with rosacea have a much higher mite count; one theory is that when they multiply too quickly they trigger rosacea development or worsen symptoms.
A number of studies have demonstrated that tea tree oil can greatly reduce or eradicate these mites due to its antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties. This also serves to calm irritated skin.
The primary cause of this condition is the overproduction of Malassezia yeast, a type of fungus that is normally found on the skin’s surface. Successful treatment involves antifungal agents in the form of topical creams and shampoos.
In one study, tea tree oil improved symptoms by 41% with a 5% tea tree shampoo. This was calculated by examining severity, itchiness and greasiness as measured by patient self-assessments. However, there was not a significant improvement in scaliness.
Due to tea tree oil’s potent antiseptic and antibacterial properties, it can effectively inhibit or destroy microorganisms and prevent infection.
In one small study participants had their wounds infected with Staphylococcus aureus bacteria and then treated with tea tree oil. Compared to the control group using conventional treatment, the results were observed to be striking.
Another time-kill study found this oil killed several multidrug-resistant organisms such as methicillin-resistant S. aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa within 60 minutes.
Research has also shown that this oil triggers white blood cell activation. White blood cells play a key role in protecting the body against harmful pathogens and are instrumental in the wound-healing process.
How to Dilute Tea Tree Oil
In its pure form, tea tree oil can cause dryness, blisters and rashes; it must be diluted with a carrier oil such as almond oil, avocado or olive oil before use. Use a ratio of 1–2 drops of tea tree oil to 12 drops of carrier oil.
When choosing an oil, opt for a product that is 100% natural and additive-free. Read the product label carefully to ensure it is identified as melaleuca alternifolia and purchase it from a reliable source.
For best results, select an organic product that contains a concentration of 10%–40% terpinen-4-ol.
How to Apply Tea Tree Oil to Skin
Before applying diluted tea tree oil to your skin, perform a patch test to determine if you have any allergies or sensitivity. Place 1–2 drops of diluted oil on your inner forearm and if no irritation occurs within a period of 24 hours, you may use it for your intended purpose.
Applying tea tree oil to the face
You can safely apply diluted tea tree oil to your face, but avoid the eye area as this can cause redness and irritation.
There are several ways you can incorporate tea tree oil into your skin care routine. You can add a few drops to your cleanser or moisturizer, or as follows:
Acne spot treatment: After cleansing, gently dab blemishes with tea tree oil using a cotton ball or swab; allow to dry and continue with moisturizer.
Toner: Add 3 drops of tea tree oil to toner and apply twice a day using a cotton ball; for oily or acne-prone skin add 3 drops to 2 ounces of witch hazel; this combination does double duty by targeting acne-induced inflammation and oiliness.
Overnight treatment: Apply the oil to freshly washed skin using a cotton ball; rinse off with warm water in the morning.
You also have the option of purchasing a ready-made product that contains tea tree oil. There are a wide range of skin care products to suit your needs, including cleansers, toners, serums, moisturizers, and medicated creams or ointments.
Applying tea tree oil to the scalp
Tea tree oil can relieve itchiness and dandruff but it can also support healthy hair by preventing buildup of dead skin cells, unblocking and clearing pores and moisturizing the scalp.
Shampoo: Combine 2–3 drops of diluted tea tree oil to a small amount of shampoo, wash hair and rinse well
Dry hair or scalp: Apply diluted tea tree oil to the scalp, massage gently, allow to rest for 10 minutes, then wash off
Leave-on hair conditioner: Add several drops of undiluted tea tree oil to distilled water and spray on hair daily
Risks of Using Tea Tree Oil
Although rare, several studies have determined this oil can cause an imbalance in male hormones in puberty. This has been shown to cause prepubertal gynecomastia (breast enlargement) in boys exposed to this oil.
Tea tree is toxic if ingested and is not for consumption, regardless of concentration.
Tea tree oil is an essential oil that has a number of strong qualities to heal and nourish both the scalp and skin. While understudied in clinical trials, many in vitro studies have revealed this oil can provide antibacterial, antimicrobial and antiseptic benefits.
Tea tree oil can treat inflammatory skin conditions such as acne and eczema, and as an insecticide, can kill rosacea mites, head lice and mosquitoes. It can be used as an alternative to over the counter or prescription medications to treat a range of skin and scalp conditions.
Although generally considered safe, tea tree oil has been known to trigger irritation or allergic reactions. Before using, perform a patch test to ensure this substance is appropriate for you.
- Hart PH, Brand C, Carson CF, Riley TV, Prager RH, Finlay-Jones JJ. Terpinen-4-ol, the main component of the essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree oil), suppresses inflammatory mediator production by activated human monocytes. Inflamm Res. 2000;49(11):619-626. doi:10.1007/s000110050639
- Garozzo A, Timpanaro R, Bisignano B, Furneri PM, Bisignano G, Castro A. In vitro antiviral activity of Melaleuca alternifolia essential oil. Lett Appl Microbiol. 2009;49(6):806-808. doi:10.1111/j.1472-765X.2009.02740.x
- Schnitzler P, Schön K, Reichling J. Antiviral activity of Australian tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil against herpes simplex virus in cell culture. Pharmazie. 2001;56(4):343-347.
- Cox SD, Mann CM, Markham JL, Gustafson JE, Warmington JR, Wyllie SG. Determining the Antimicrobial Actions of Tea Tree Oil. Molecules. 2001; 6(2):87-91. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6236410/
- Hammer KA, Carson CF, Riley TV. Antifungal activity of the components of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil. J Appl Microbiol. 2003;95(4):853-60. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2672.2003.02059.x
- Mertas A, Garbusińska A, Szliszka E, Jureczko A, Kowalska M, Król W. The influence of tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) on fluconazole activity against fluconazole-resistant Candida albicans strains. Biomed Res Int. 2015;2015:590470. doi:10.1155/2015/590470
- Thosar N, Basak S, Bahadure RN, Rajurkar M. Antimicrobial efficacy of five essential oils against oral pathogens: An in vitro study. Eur J Dent. 2013;7(Suppl 1):S071-S077. doi:10.4103/1305-7456.119078
- Pazyar N, Yaghoobi R, Bagherani N, Kazerouni A. A review of applications of tea tree oil in dermatology. Int J Dermatol. 2013;52(7):784-790. doi:10.1111/j.1365-4632.2012.05654.x
- Fonseca-Santos B et al. An effective mosquito-repellent topical product from liquid crystal-based tea tree oil. Industrial Crops and Products. Elsevier. February 2019.
- Malhi HK, Tu J, Riley TV, Kumarasinghe SP, Hammer KA. Tea tree oil gel for mild to moderate acne; a 12 week uncontrolled, open-label phase II pilot study. Australas J Dermatol. 2017;58(3):205-210. doi:10.1111/ajd.12465
- Lubtikulthum P, Kamanamool N, Udompataikul M. A comparative study on the effectiveness of herbal extracts vs 2.5% benzoyl peroxide in the treatment of mild to moderate acne vulgaris. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2019;18(6):1767-1775. doi:10.1111/jocd.12962
- Satchell AC, Saurajen A, Bell C, Barnetson RS. Treatment of interdigital tinea pedis with 25% and 50% tea tree oil solution: a randomized, placebo-controlled, blinded study. Australas J Dermatol. 2002;43(3):175-178. doi:10.1046/j.1440-0960.2002.00590.x
- Wallengren J. Tea tree oil attenuates experimental contact dermatitis. Arch Dermatol Res. 2011;303(5):333-338. doi:10.1007/s00403-010-1083-y
- Di Campli E, Di Bartolomeo S, Delli Pizzi P, Di Giulio M, Grande R, Nostro A, Cellini L. Activity of tea tree oil and nerolidol alone or in combination against Pediculus capitis (head lice) and its eggs. Parasitol Res. 2012 Nov;111(5):1985-92. doi:10.1007/s00436-012-3045-0
- Pazyar N, Yaghoobi R. Tea tree oil as a novel antipsoriasis weapon. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2012;25(3):162-163. doi:10.1159/000337936
- Gao YY, Di Pascuale MA, Li W, et al. In vitro and in vivo killing of ocular Demodex by tea tree oil. Br J Ophthalmol. 2005;89(11):1468-1473. doi:10.1136/bjo.2005.072363
- Satchell AC, Saurajen A, Bell C, Barnetson RS. Treatment of dandruff with 5% tea tree oil shampoo. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2002;47(6):852-855. doi:10.1067/mjd.2002.122734
- Chin KB, Cordell B. The effect of tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) on wound healing using a dressing model. J Altern Complement Med. 2013;19(12):942-945. doi:10.1089/acm.2012.0787
- Budhiraja SS, Cullum ME, Sioutis SS, Evangelista L, Habanova ST. Biological activity of Melaleuca alternifola (Tea Tree) oil component, terpinen-4-ol, in human myelocytic cell line HL-60. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 1999;22(7):447-453. doi:10.1016/s0161-4754(99)70033-3
- May J, Chan CH, King A, Williams L, French GL. Time-kill studies of tea tree oils on clinical isolates. J Antimicrob Chemother. 2000;45(5):639-643. doi:10.1093/jac/45.5.639
- Piazza S, Martinelli G, Vrhovsek U, et al. Anti-Inflammatory and Anti-Acne Effects of Hamamelis virginiana Bark in Human Keratinocytes. Antioxidants (Basel). 2022;11(6):1119. Published 2022 Jun 5. doi:10.3390/antiox11061119
- Hammer KA, Carson CF, Riley TV, Nielsen JB. A review of the toxicity of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil. Food Chem Toxicol. 2006;44(5):616-625. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2005.09.001
- Henley DV, Lipson N, Korach KS, Bloch CA. Prepubertal gynecomastia linked to lavender and tea tree oils. N Engl J Med. 2007;356(5):479-485. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa064725
- Rutherford T, Nixon R, Tam M, Tate B. Allergy to tea tree oil: retrospective review of 41 cases with positive patch tests over 4.5 years. Australas J Dermatol. 2007;48(2):83-87. doi:10.1111/j.1440-0960.2007.00341.x