- Tea tree oil is a natural oil derived from the tea tree plant and is commonly used as a home remedy.
- Studies have shown that tea tree oil is effective for the treatment of open comedones (blackheads), but less so than other over-the-counter products.
- Tea tree oil generally has few side effects and is well tolerated, but prepubescent males should not use it.
What Is Tea Tree Oil?
Tea tree oil is an aromatic essential oil derived from Melaleuca alternifolia, commonly known as the Australian tea tree plant. This oil is frequently used as a home remedy for a variety of skin care treatments including acne, dandruff and mild bacterial infections.
Tea tree oil is a topical treatment only, and is poisonous when consumed orally.
As a treatment for blackheads, tea tree oil has demonstrated a similar efficacy to 5% benzoyl peroxide, although it takes longer than benzoyl peroxide to achieve the same results.
How Does Tea Tree Oil Fight Blackheads?
When excess oil from the skin’s sebaceous glands combines with dead skin cells, a sticky plug can form and clog hair follicles. When this sticky plug is exposed to oxygen, it changes to black in color.
Tea tree oil is thought to prevent blackheads through two mechanisms of action:
- As a natural anti-inflammatory, tea tree oil may prevent or reduce localized swelling within hair follicles.
- As a natural antibacterial, tea tree oil may also prevent infection which can cause inflammation and delay healing of the follicle.
Of note, studies demonstrating tea tree oil’s efficacy were conducted using a 5% solution of tea tree oil. Many commercially available concentrations use significantly weaker formulations, and may therefore be less effective.
How to Apply Tea Tree Oil to Clear Blackheads
Before applying tea tree oil to your blackheads, it’s advisable to wash your face with warm water and a gentle cleanser that is appropriate for your skin type. After patting your face dry, gently apply the tea tree oil to your blackheads.
If you have dry skin, you can also combine tea tree oil with an unscented noncomedogenic moisturizer. Simply add a few drops of tea tree oil to a small amount of moisturizer in the palm of your hand and gently massage the mixture into your skin.
Side Effects of Using Tea Tree Oil for Blackheads
Tea tree oil is very well tolerated. One study showed that tea tree oil caused contact dermatitis in less than 1% of participants.
However, if you have sensitive skin, you may want to try applying tea tree oil to a discreet area of skin before using it on your face.
Tea Tree Oil Warnings and Side Effects
While tea tree oil is considered very safe, there are several serious side effects to be aware of.
Tea tree oil is poisonous and should never be ingested. Rare but serious side effects include confusion, decreased levels of consciousness and awareness, or loss of motor-control.
Tea tree oil has been shown to cause temporary breast development (gynecomastia) in prepubescent males; this group should avoid all tea tree products.
Using this oil within the ear canal may cause permanent hearing damage.
Insufficient studies exist to determine the safety of tea tree oil for pregnant and nursing women. As such, tea tree oil should be avoided if you are pregnant or nursing.
Alternatives to Tea Tree Oil Treatment for Blackheads
Tea tree essential oil has been demonstrated to have antibacterial properties, anti-inflammatory properties and is an effective way to remove blackheads.
Although tea tree oil is as effective as an equivalent solution of benzoyl peroxide, it is no better than purpose-formulated skin care products and may cause side effects.
Better alternatives for treating blackheads are alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic acid and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) such as salicylic acid which are available without a prescription.
If you have acne-prone skin, remember to keep your skin oil-free with regular cleansing, and to remove dead skin cells by exfoliating regularly with a facial scrub.
For a complete overview of blackhead treatments, see our in-depth guide to blackhead causes, prevention and treatment options.
- Bassett IB, Pannowitz DL, Barnetson RS. (1990). A comparative study of tea-tree oil versus benzoylperoxide in the treatment of acne. Med J Aust. 1990 Oct15;153(8):455-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2145499
- Carson, C. F., Hammer, K. A., & Riley, T. V. (2006). Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) oil: a review of antimicrobial and other medicinal properties. Clinical microbiology reviews, 19(1), 50–62. doi:10.1128/CMR.19.1.50-62.2006
- Decker, A., & Graber, E. M. (2012). Over-the-counter Acne Treatments: A Review. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 5(5), 32–40. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3366450/
- Aspres N, Freeman S: Predictive Testing for Irritancy and Allergenicity of Tea Tree Oil in Normal Human Subjects. Exog Dermatol 2003;2:258-261. doi: 10.1159/000078694
- Hammer, K.A. (2015) Treatment of acne with tea tree oil (melaleuca) products: A review of
efficacy, tolerability and potential modes of action. static1.squarespace.com/static/57330ac21d07c0d298ec51e3/t/57ee003ee3df28e138448dcf/1475215428402/tea+tree.pdf
- Henley, Derek V. PHD; Lipson, Natasha MD; Korach, Kenneth S. PHD; Bloch, Clifford A. (2007) Prepubertal Gynecomastia Linked to Lavender and Tea Tree Oils. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa064725
- Malhi, Harsimran Kaur; Tu, Jenny; Riley, Thomas V.; Kumarasinghe, Sujith Prasad; Hammer, Katherine A. (2017) Tea tree oil gel for mild to moderate acne; a 12 week uncontrolled, open-label phase II pilot study. doi: 10.1111/ajd.12465