Tea tree oil in skin care
Tea tree oil is one of the best natural antimicrobial ingredients in skin care.
It has been used for cosmetic purposes for thousands of years and remains popular today.
The only significant drawback of tea tree oil is its potential as an allergen.
To find out if tea tree oil is right for your skin, take the Baumann Skin Type questionnaire!
What is tea tree oil
Tea tree oil (TTO) is a plant oil derived from the melaleuca alternifolia bush found in and around Australia.
TTO has been used for thousands of years by native Australians for traditional medical purposes like treating bruises, respiratory issues, and skin infections.(10)
Today, TTO can still be found in many skin care products, and is considered especially good for use in acne products. (4,11,15)
Multiple studies have found TTO to be one of the most effective broad spectrum antimicrobial ingredients on the market. (3,12,14)
Uses for skin
Tea tree oil can be found in many kinds of skin care products designed to treat conditions like.(8,18,45)
Burns (including sunburns)
Cuts and wounds
TTO is usually used in low concentrations in skin care products because it is extremely potent.
TTO is typically used in cosmetics for its extremely significant antimicrobial properties. (12)
It can also be found in many laundry detergents as it eliminates mites. (6)
Benefits of tea tree oil
Tea tree oil is one of the best, if not the best, antimicrobial plant oils used in skin care.
Its beneficial activities include:
Tea tree oil is particularly effective as an antimicrobial ingredient in skin care. (2,5)
A 2001 study revealed that TTO blocks the conversion of certain kinds of yeast into their pathogenic forms. (2)
These findings lead the researchers to claim that TTO could be a suitable ingredient in the treatment of various fungal infections.
Another study found that TTO might be effective in combatting swimmers ear as well, however, there is a chance of resulting damage to the ear. (23)
In 2008, another case reported success in treating warts caused by HPV (Human Papillomavirus) over 12 days. (24)
Studies have also found that repeated use of TTO does not result in the development of more resistant skin bacteria or fungi. (18)
TTO is 13 times more antiseptic, or disinfectant, than carbolic acid (another common antiseptic). (12,13)
Some studies even suggest that TTO might be effective in eliminating some varieties of the herpes virus. (44)
Multiple studies have been conducted on the efficacy of tea tree oil in cancer treatments, and many have found success in use of the ingredient.
For example, in 2012, one study reported that a 10% dilution of TTO in certain formulations quickly resulted in anti-cancer effects in tumors under the skin. (20)
Another study also found anti-tumor benefits through topical application of TTO. (21)
The science supporting TTO in cancer treatments is extremely promising and exciting. More research is needed to determine what other kinds of cancers TTO might treat.
However, skin cancers can be deadly. Do not try to treat them yourself. We recommend seeing a dermatologist if you have any suspicious lesions.
When compared in a study to benzol peroxide, one of the most common acne treating ingredients, it was found that while benzol peroxide worked faster than TTO, TTO had fewer side-effects. (3)
Tea tree oil work best when combined with other acne treatments such as salicylic acid and retinoids.
If tea tree oil is used as the soul agent to treat acne, topical application of TTO is recommended three or four times daily. (14)
For dry skin conditions
That being said, as it contains anti-inflammatory properties, it can still have uses as an ingredient in dry skin products but should be combined with a barrier repair moisturizer and a barrier protecting cleanser.
When used alongside a moisturizing ingredient like sunflower oil, TTO might have a place in dry skin regimens, depending which of the 16 Baumann Skin Types you are.
Psoriasis is a chronic inflammatory skin disease that is characterized by the hyperproliferation of keratinocytes and inflammation.
Terpinen-4-ol is a naturally occurring terpene alcohol found in the essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree oil).
There is currently limited research specifically on the mechanism by which terpinen-4-ol may work for psoriasis, but it is likely that the antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties of terpinen-4-ol help reduce the severity of psoriasis symptoms.(16)
Additionally, terpinen-4-ol has been found to have antioxidant properties, which may help protect the skin from oxidative stress, a potential trigger for psoriasis.
However, more research is needed to fully understand the mechanism by which terpinen-4-ol may work for psoriasis and to determine its effectiveness and safety for this purpose.
For sensitive skin
TTO is also effective in the treatment of many kinds of rashes, rosacea, and other types of skin inflammation.
Tea tree oil contains several chemical components that have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, including terpinen-4-ol, alpha-pinene, and gamma-terpinene.
Terpinen-4-ol is one of the main components of tea tree oil and has been extensively studied for its anti-inflammatory properties.
It has been shown to inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines, which are molecules that play a key role in the inflammatory response.
Terpinen-4-ol has also been found to suppress the activation of nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB), a transcription factor that regulates the expression of genes involved in inflammation.
Alpha-pinene and gamma-terpinene are also present in tea tree oil and have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.
Alpha-pinene has been found to inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines, while gamma-terpinene has been shown to inhibit the production of the pro-inflammatory enzyme cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2).
The anti-inflammatory properties of these chemical components in tea tree oil may help to reduce inflammation and swelling in the skin, however, it is important to note that tea tree oil should be used with caution, as it can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions in some individuals.
Inflammation also plays a role in rosacea.
One study (48) in 2017 evaluated the efficacy of a topical combination of tea tree oil and metronidazole in treating rosacea. The study found that the combination treatment was more effective in reducing the severity of rosacea symptoms compared to metronidazole alone.
Demodex mites play a role in rosacea and the eye inflammation called blepharitis that afflicts some people with rosacea.
One study (51) found that tea tree oil was effective in killing Demodex mites and the study authors suggest that tea tree oil may be a useful topical treatment option for patients with Demodex-associated conditions.
Overall, these studies suggest that tea tree oil may have potential benefits for individuals with rosacea, including its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.
More research is needed to determine the most effective formulation and dosage to treat rosacea.
What kind of oil is tea tree?
Tea tree oil is mostly composed of terpenes, which means it is an essential oil without any lipid content.
In other words, tea tree oil is not a true oil.
As a pressed plant extract, tea tree oil is often considered an essential oil, it carries a strong, desirable fragrance.
It is usually processed with chemicals, so is not organic like many other essential oils are.
Tea tree oil contains more than 100 active chemical compounds, primarily terpenes and alcohols.
The most significant active compounds in tea tree oil are (5,6):
Terpinen-4-ol is a very common allergen*
Even though tea tree oil has so many benefits, there have been a few observed side-effects as well.
TTO should not be consumed orally, as it is considered toxic.
Common side-effects from orally consuming TTO can include (6,10,17):
A recent study conducted in Italy on the use of plant-based products in skin care found that 11% of people studied had some kind of negative allergic reaction to TTO. (33)
The most significant active compound in TTO, terpinen-4-ol, is an extremely common allergen. (34)
If you are allergic to tea tree oil, repeated use can result in worsening reactions over time.
Is tea tree oil safe?
Unless you are allergic to or orally consuming tea tree oil, it is considered safe.
The EWG rating for tea tree oil is a "6," which is fairly poor, however that safety rating primarily reflects how common an allergen it is and the aforementioned toxicity when consumed orally.
Otherwise, the risks of TTO have been demonstrated as minimal in many studies, and it is used in many skin care products today.
To make sure tea tree oil products are safe for your skin care, shop by your Baumann Skin Type.
Tea tree oil is also a sustainable resource, it can be harvested year round and recover quickly from harvesting.
How to use tea tree oil
The exact procedure for applying your tea tree oil products will depend on your personal skin concerns and custom skin care regimen.
Tea tree oil is primarily used in cleansers and bacteria eliminating products as it is an extremely effective antimicrobial ingredient.
It can be applied up to three times a day during normal acne routines if it is a part of your custom skin care regimen.
When applying to hair for everyday use, be sure to use a very small amount.
Tea tree oil is best used very modestly, and run through the sides of your hair instead of on your roots. Overuse will result in greasy looking and feeling hair.
When found in high concentrations such as in spot treatments, TTO is best only applied directly to pimples, not the whole face.
Coconut oil vs tea tree for skin care
Coconut oil and tea tree oil serve completely different functions in skin care.
Coconut oil is composed of hydrating and barrier forming fatty acids which make it a great ingredient in moisturizers.
Tea tree oil has no lipid content, so instead is used for it's antimicrobial benefits.
Differences for hair care
Coconut oil and tea tree oil are two of the most popular oils used in hair care, so it might be easy to assume they share many traits in common; however, their functions in hair care are very different.
Coconut oil is primarily composed of solidifying, creamy, saturated fats which are good at locking moisture into the hair but can weigh down waves and curls.
Coconut oil is great for protecting your hair from all sorts of environmental factors like sun, humidity, and wind, but becomes solid and unpleasant in cold weather.
Tea tree oil on the other hand is composed primarily of terpenes which are not lipids.
The antimicrobial compounds and fatty alcohols in tea tree oil serve dual purposes in hair care; preventing/eliminating dermatophytes and hydrating the scalp.
In other words, tea tree oil is used to keep hair clean, and prevent dryness.
Tea tree oil in hair care
Tea tree oil has many antimicrobial functions in hair care products.
TTO has been shown to treat and prevent dandruff when used at as little as a 5% concentration in shampoos. One study reported a 41% improvement in dandruff following repeated use of TTO.(26,27)
Another study conducted that same year showed TTO to be an effective treatment for various dermatophytes (fungal buildups or infections on the hair, nails, or skin).(28)
TTO has the ability to prevent, suffocate, an otherwise eliminate pests like headlice or ticks. It is more effective at eliminating these pests than other popular chemicals like pyrethrins. (29)
There are even uses for tea tree oil in hair loss products, with one study finding that hair growth, strand count, and thickness of hair all increased after prolonged use of TTO. (31)
It is non-comedogenic so it does not pose a risk to clogging the pores on your scalp or hairline.
What kinds of products?
Tea tree oil can be found commonly in products designed to eliminate bacteria, viruses, or fungi on the skin.
Cleansers, acne spot treatments, and dandruff shampoos all often use TTO. (6)
Not all products use TTO, however, since it is such a common allergen. If you are allergic to TTO, be sure to check the ingredient label of skin care products before buying them.
Best products containing tea tree oil:
If you are not allergic to tea tree oil, it can be a very significant part of any skin care regimen, but to be sure it's right for you, take the Baumann Skin Type questionnaire to shop by your personal skin type.
Here are some of our favorite products containing tea tree oil!
Here are some of the best references on tea tree oil in skin care:
1. Carson CF, Hammer KA, Riley TV. Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) oil: a review of antimicrobial and other medicinal properties. Clin Microbiol Rev. 19:50, 2006.
2. D’Auria FD, Laino L, Strippoli V, et al. In vitro activity of tea tree oil against Candida albicans mycelia conversion and other pathogenic fungi. J Chemother. 13:377, 2001.
3. Bassett IB, Pannowitz DL, Barnetson RS. A comparative study of tea-tree oil versus benzoylperoxide in the treatment of acne. Med J Aust. 153:455, 1990.
4. Pazyar N, Yaghoobi R, Bagherani N, et al. A review of applications of tea tree oil in dermatology. Int J Dermatol. 52:784, 2013.
5. Morelli V, Calmet E, Jhingade V. Alternative therapies for common dermatologic disorders, part 2. Prim Care. 37:285, 2010.
6. Larson D, Jacob SE. Tea tree oil. Dermatitis. 23:48, 2012.
7. Lis-Balchin M, Hart SL, Deans SG. Pharmacological and antimicrobial studies on different tea-tree oils (Melaleuca alternifolia, Leptospermum scoparium or Manuka and Kunzea ericoides or Kanuka), originating in Australia and New Zealand. Phytother Res. 14:623, 2000.
8. Aburjai T, Natsheh FM. Plants used in cosmetics. Phythother Res. 17:987, 2003.
9. Carson CF, Riley TV. Safety, efficacy and provenance of tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) oil. Contact Dermatitis. 45:65, 2001.
10. American Cancer Society. Tea tree oil. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/ComplementaryandAlternativeMedicine/HerbsVitaminsandMinerals/tea-tree-oil. Accessed October 8, 2013.
11. Reuter J, Merfort I, Schempp CM. Botanicals in dermatology: an evidence-based review. Am J Clin Dermatol. 11:247, 2010.
12. Thomsen PS, Jensen TM, Hammer KA, et al. Survey of the antimicrobial activity of commercially available Australian tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) essential oil products in vitro. J Altern Complement Med. 17:835, 2011.
13. Foster S. An Illustrated Guide to 101 Medicinal Herbs: Their History, Use, Recommended Dosages, and Cautions. Loveland, CO, Interweave Press, 1998, pp. 196-7.
14. Hoffmann D. Medical herbalism: the science and practice of herbal medicine. Rochester, VT, Healing Arts Press, 2003, p. 439.
15. Enshaieh S, Jooya A, Siadat AH, et al. The efficacy of 5% topical tea tree oil gel in mild to moderate acne vulgaris: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 73:22, 2007.
16. Pazyar N, Yaghoobi R. Tea tree oil as a novel antipsoriasis weapon. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 25:162, 2012.
17. Crawford GH, Sciacca JR, James WD. Tea tree oil: cutaneous effects of the extracted oil of Melaleuca alternifolia. Dermatitis. 15:59, 2004.
18. Thomsen NA, Hammer KA, Riley TV, et al. Effect of habituation to tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) oil on the subsequent susceptibility of Staphylococcus spp. to antimicrobials, triclosan, tea tree oil, terpinen-4-ol and carvacrol. Int J Antimicrob Agents. 41:343, 2013.
19. Ernst E, Huntley A. Tea tree oil: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Forsch Komplementarmed Klass Naturheilkd. 7:17, 2000.
20. Ireland DJ, Greay SJ, Hooper CM, et al. Topically applied Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil causes direct anti-cancer cytotoxicity in subcutaneous tumour bearing mice. J Dermatol Sci. 67:120, 2012.
21. Greay SJ, Ireland DJ, Kissick HT, et al. Inhibition of established subcutaneous murine tumour growth with topical Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil. Cancer Chemother Pharmacol. 66:1095, 2010.
22. Greay SJ, Ireland DJ, Kissick HT, et al. Induction of necrosis and cell cycle arrest in murine cancer cell lines by Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil and terpinen-4-ol. Cancer Chemother Pharmacol. 65:877, 2010.
23. Zhang SY, Robertson D. A study of tea tree oil ototoxicity. Audiol Neurootol. 5:64, 2000.
24. Millar BC, Moore JE. Successful topical treatment of hand warts in a paediatric patient with tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia). Complement Ther Clin Pract. 14:225, 2008.
25. Edmondson M, Newall N, Carville K, et al. Uncontrolled, open-label, pilot study of tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) oil solution in the decolonisation of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus positive wounds and its influence on wound healing. Int Wound J. 8:375, 2011.
26. Morelli V, Calmet E, Jhingade V. Alternative therapies for common dermatologic disorders, part I. Prim Care. 37:269, 2010.
27. Satchell AC, Saurajen A, Bell C, et al. Treatment of dandruff with 5% tea tree oil shampoo. J Am Acad Dermatol. 47:852, 2002.
28. Satchell AC, Saurajen A, Bell C, et al. Treatment of interdigital tinea pedis with 25% and 50% tea tree oil solution: a randomized, placebo-controlled, blinded study. Australas J Dermatol. 43:175, 2002.
29. Barker SC, Altman PM. A randomized, assessor blind, parallel group comparative efficacy trial of three products for the treatment of head lice in children—melaleuca oil and lavender oil, pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide, and a “suffocation” product. BMC Dermatol. 10:6, 2010.
30. Patel KG, Raju VK. Ocular demodicosis. W V Med J. 109:16, 2013.
31. Sakr FM, Gado AM, Mohammed HR, et al. Preparation and evaluation of a multimodal minoxidil microemulsion versus minoxidil alone in the treatment of androgenetic alopecia of mixed etiology: a pilot study. Drug Des Devel Ther. 7:413, 2013.
32. Tirabassi G, Giovannini L, Paggi F, et al. Possible efficacy of Lavender and Tea tree oils in the treatment of young women affected by mild idiopathic hirsutism. J Endocrinol Invest. 36:50, 2013.
33. Corazza M, Borghi A, Gallo R, et al. Topical botanically derived products: use, skin reactions, and usefulness of patch tests. A multicentre Italian study. Contact Dermatitis. 2013 Aug 2. [Epub ahead of print]
34. Hausen BM, Reichling J, Harkenthal M. Degradation products of monoterpenes are the sensitizing agents in tea tree oil. Am J Contact Dermat. 10:68, 1999.
35. Khanna M, Qasem K, Sasseville D. Allergic contact dermatitis to tea tree oil with erythema multiforme-like id reaction. Am J Contact Dermat. 11:238, 2000.
36. Knight TE, Hausen BM. Melaleuca oil (tea tree oil) dermatitis. J Am Acad Dermatol. 30:423, 1994.
37. Brand C, Grimbaldeston MA, Gamble JR, et al. Tea tree oil reduces the swelling associated with the efferent phase of a contact hypersensitivity response. Inflamm Res. 51:236, 2002.
38. Brand C, Townley SL, Finlay-Jones JJ, et al. Tea tree oil reduces histamine-induced oedema in murine ears. Inflamm Res. 51:283, 2002.
39. Hammer KA, Carson CF, Riley TV. Effects of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) essential oil and the major monoterpene component terpinen-4-ol on the development of single- and multistep antibiotic resistance and antimicrobial susceptibility. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 56:909, 2012.
40. Hammer KA, Carson CF, Riley TV, et al. A review of the toxicity of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil. Food Chem Toxicol. 44:616, 2006.
41. Rutherford T, Nixon R, Tam M, et al. Allergy to tea tree oil: retrospective review of 41 cases with positive patch tests over 4.5 years. Australas J Dermatol. 48:83, 2007.
42. Henley DV, Lipson N, Korach KS, et al. Prepubertal gynecomastia linked to lavender and tea tree oils. N Engl J Med. 356:479, 2007.
43. Baumann L. Botanical ingredients in cosmeceuticals. J Drugs Dermatol. 6:1084, 2007.
44. Carson CF, Ashton L, Dry L, et al. Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil gel (6%) for the treatment of recurrent herpes labialis. J Antimicrob Chemother. 48:450, 2001.
45. Koh KJ, Pearce AL, Marshman G, et al. Tea tree oil reduces histamine-induced skin inflammation. Br J Dermatol. 147:1212, 2002.
46. Ernst E, Pittler MH, Stevinson C. Complementary/alternative medicine in dermatology: evidence-assessed efficacy of two diseases and two treatments. Am J Clin Dermatol. 3:341, 2002.
47. Bowe WP, Shalita AR. Effective over-the-counter acne treatments. Semin Cutan Med Surg. 27:170, 2008.
48. Dall'Oglio F, Lacarrubba F, Verzì AE, Micali G. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of a combined topical agent containing metronidazole and tea tree oil for moderate to severe facial rosacea. J Dermatolog Treat. 2017 Feb;28(1):71-76.
49. Ramage G, Milligan S, Lappin DF, Sherry L, Sweeney P, Williams C. Antifungal, cytotoxic, and immunomodulatory properties of tea tree oil and its derivative components: potential role in management of oral candidiasis in cancer patients. Front Microbiol. 2012;3:220.
50. Choi SY, Lee SH, Choi EJ, et al. Effects of tea tree oil on the inflammation of mouse ears induced by Staphylococcus aureus. J Dermatol Sci. 2018 Nov;92(2):143-150.
51. Liu J, Sheha H, Tseng SC. Pathogenic role of Demodex mites in blepharitis. Current Opinion in Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 2010 Oct;10(5):505-510.