I wash my hair with a shampoo that contains tea tree oil. I blot my face a few times a week with tea tree–oil soaked pads. All I know about either product is that it makes my scalp and skin tingle for a few minutes after application. It’s a pleasant sensation I assume is beneficial, but to be honest, I have no idea what tea tree oil really does or why it’s popping up in so many hair and skincare products. Supposedly, it cures everything from acne to athlete’s foot to (possibly) certain viral infections. But just how magical is this essential oil?
Exploring the Probable and Possible Benefits
Tea tree oil comes from the leaves of a plant called Melealeuca alternifolia, which grows natively in New South Wales, Australia. Aborigines in the area have used the leaves medicinally for many years, grinding them up to make a salve for skin wounds and using them to brew a tea for respiratory issues. Word of the plant’s healing properties spread during the 1920s, drawing interest in and desire for the oil far beyond the Bundjalung Aborigines of New South Wales. Since then, numerous studies have tested tea tree oil’s effects on skin ailments, infections, and the like and have concluded that it’s a potentially viable treatment for certain conditions. However, the jury’s still out on a number of medical problems tea tree oil purportedly remedies.
According to Medline Plus, a National Institutes of Health website, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database lists three conditions for which tea tree oil is “possibly effective”: athlete’s foot, nail fungus infections, and acne that’s not severe. A few studies have supported tea tree oil’s potential efficacy in these matters. For example, a 1996 study out of a university in Germany found that the oil inhibited growth when applied to numerous varieties of pathogenic fungi. A 1990 study conducted in New South Wales’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital showed that tea tree oil proved just as successful as commonly used benzoyl peroxide in treating mild to moderate acne—albeit more slowly, but also with fewer unfavorable side effects.
Here’s what the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database says we need more research on when it comes to the powers of tea tree oil: cold sores, vaginal infections, ear infections, ringworm, cough and congestion, and head lice. There is at least some evidence supporting tea tree oil’s ability to treat or at least help mitigate these conditions, though. A 2001 study at the University of Heidelberg concluded that tea tree oil has antiviral properties that could target the herpes simplex virus. Another study, conducted in 2008 and published in Medical and Veterinary Entomology, showed that a specially formulated tea tree gel treated cases of head lice more effectively than all other products tested, including one usually prescribed.
Other research has suggested tea tree oil’s potency in fighting yeast infections, dandruff (a 2002 study also out of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital showed a significant improvement in itchiness, total area affected, and greasiness among volunteers), skin inflammation, and, perhaps most remarkable, the highly serious bacterial infection MRSA. Two different studies, one conducted in 1994 and the other in 2008, found that tea tree oil might be beneficial in treating the troubling illness. However, as is the case with cold sores, yeast infections, and so forth, more evidence is necessary before scientists and medical professionals can speak definitively to tea tree oil’s role in this realm. As the leads of a 2006 scientific review of tea tree oil wrote in Clinical Microbiology Reviews, “Large randomized clinical trials are now required to cement a place for TTO as a topical medicinal agent.”
Keep Tea Tree Oil on the Outside
Given that the majority of research surrounding tea tree oil’s effects is positive, it seems that using it as a method for easing dandruff, skin ailments, and the like is a good idea—as long as it doesn’t cause irritation. (Some people are sensitive to tea tree oil. Personally, I find it dries up my skin if I use the soaked facial pads too often.) Time will tell just what kind of role the oil will play in the medical community, as we look for alternatives to antibiotics and harsh medications in treatment methods. But one thing we know here and now, other than that tea tree oil has antimicrobial characteristics, is that it’s potentially deadly if swallowed. I guess sometimes even the most useful of elixirs has a downside.