Stop by any well-stocked natural foods outlet that sells essential oils, or visit the website of a producer which prides itself on variety, and you may see nearly 100 different essential oils for sale.
Lavender oil? Peppermint oil? Eucalyptus? Lemon? Sweet orange? There’s no mystery there. Even your pre-schoolers could guess where those essential oils (EOs) are sourced from.
But tea tree oil? What in the world is tea tree? Is it really even a tree?
Yes, Virginia, there really is a tea tree. Although to be more precise it’s actually a plant, and its leaves aren’t used to produce your breakfast tea, either.
What it does produce is an essential oil that appears to be a very potent weapon against a number of illnesses and medical conditions. It can also be used to make an excellent hand sanitizer – and the Covid pandemic taught us how valuable that can be.
Now that we’ve piqued your interest, let’s learn more about the mysterious tea tree plant and the oil that comes from it.
The Oddly-Named Tea Tree
You would think that the Camellia sinensis plant is more deserving of the name “tea tree,” since almost all traditional teas – black, green, white and oolong – are derived from the leaves of that Asian plant.
But British explorer Captain James Cook took the name first.
For centuries, indigenous Australian societies had been using the leaves of a wild plant for its medicinal properties, primarily using oil from its crushed leaves to treat colds and heal wounds. The plant, known as Melaleuca alternifolia, is a tall shrub that’s a member of the myrtle family. It’s native to swampy and coastal areas of Australia.
Cook was in Eastern Australia in the 16th century, and he observed people making a healing tea from the plant. As the story goes, Cook’s men made their own tea from the leaves – and they dubbed the plant “tea tree.” (Later, they also supposedly used the leaves to brew beer.)
Cook brought the plant back to Great Britain, where a doctor is said to have confirmed the medicinal properties of tea tree. In fact, Cook described the plant in a book named Tea Plants of the South Pacific, printed in 1777. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that the healing ability of tea tree was “discovered” to have widespread and commercial appeal.
Tea Tree Oil Goes Mainstream
The initial credit for the modern popularity of tea tree oil goes to an Australian chemist, Arthur Penfold. He recognized the promise of tea tree’s antiseptic properties and began scientific trials with human patients. Those trials showed that tea tree oil was thirteen times more powerful than the period’s most popular antiseptic, carbolic acid, and even effective against one of the era’s scourges, typhoid.
Research continued over the following decades, both in Australia and around the world. Among those investigating the properties of tea tree was Nobel prize-winning American chemist Linus Pauling. Meanwhile, a fledgling Australian industry developed around the production of tea tree oil, and its popularity as a household remedy grew Down Under.
Australian soldiers all carried tea tree oil with them in their first aid kits during World War Two. That made other Allied forces aware of the oil and its properties; it’s believed that awareness contributed to a surge in Western interest in tea tree after the war.
Studies of tea tree oil’s medicinal properties continued, Australian tea tree plantations were built starting in the 1970s, oil extraction techniques were improved – and perhaps most importantly, the worldwide interest in holistic, alternative and complementary medicine brought essential oils fully into the public’s consciousness. Today, tea tree essential oil is one of the most widely-used varieties of these oils, for very good reasons.
How is Tea Tree Essential Oil Produced?
In reality, it’s not difficult to make tea tree oil – that is, if you have some leaves from the tea tree plant. You’d just clean them, steam them, collect the vapor and then let the oil separate from the water.
Of course, not many people have access to tea tree leaves, and the oil you make at home wouldn’t be as pure or as potent as the 100% pure tea tree essential oil you can purchase at a natural foods store or on a reputable website.
Here’s how the professionals extract it.
They use a process called steam distillation, which isn’t all that different than the DIY method we’ve described. Steam is passed through the leaves and other parts of the tea tree plant; the oil’s components are then condensed, collected, separated and refined. Steam-distilled essential oil, if the process is conducted properly, is pure and undiluted.
Most tea tree oil producers are located in Australia, because that gives them proximity to the large tea tree plantations located in that nation. Business is growing rapidly; it was estimated to be a $38 million industry in 2017, but that’s projected to increase to nearly $60 million by the year 2025.
The Important Properties of Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree essential oil, sometimes referred to as melaleuca oil, has been found to contain dozens of terpenes. Those are the natural compounds that determine a plant’s scent and appearance, but they’re also responsible for many of the plant’s health and wellness benefits.
Perhaps the two most important terpenes in tea tree oil are known as terpinen-4-ol and 1,8-cineole. They’re credited with most of the key medicinal properties of this EO.
Terpinen-4-ol is tea tree essential’s oil dominant component. It’s been shown to have strong antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiseptic and anti-parasitic activities; any one of those would make it an effective treatment for a number of medical issues. The combination makes it a particularly valuable weapon against many more conditions and diseases. We’ll refer often to these properties when we look at the uses for tea tree oil in more detail.
1,8-cineole also has important anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial properties and antiseptic properties, and can additionally work as an analgesic (pain killer), antispasmodic and expectorant.
Taken together, these two terpenes found in tea tree essential oil are powerful tools as primary or complementary treatments for all types of medical issues.
Uses and Benefits of Tea Tree Essential Oil
Tea tree oil is used today in a number of different ways. It can be an effective cleaner and disinfectant, it’s an ingredient in many health and beauty products, it provides an earthy aroma (some love it, some hate it) when used in an essential oil diffuser – and of course, it’s primarily valued for the many potential health and wellness benefits it provides when used topically.
Let’s look at that last category first.
External Use of Tea Tree Essential Oil
Before getting into specifics, a very important caution. Most essential oils, including tea tree oil, can cause skin irritation or more serious reactions if they’re applied directly to the skin. Smart topical use of an EO requires dilution first; a few drops of tea tree essential oil mixed with a tablespoon of carrier oil like coconut oil or sweet almond oil before topical application will do the trick, particularly for those with sensitive skin.
Treating Cuts and Wounds
You’d expect that an antibacterial substance would be a good choice to prevent infection after you suffer a cut. You’d be right.
Tea tree oil has been used for that purpose for hundreds of years, and we now have research showing that it’s not just a folk remedy. It really works. The oil’s antimicrobial ability works particularly well against staph infections like S. aureus and S. epidermidis, without risking antibiotic resistance that’s always a possibility when prescription antibiotics are used to treat infections.
When you add the oil’s anti-inflammatory power, tea tree essential oil becomes an excellent choice for the treatment of more serious wounds and infections, even those caused by difficult-to-control MRSA bacteria. The use of tea tree oil underneath wound dressings has been shown to effectively decrease healing time, too.
Treating Fungal Infections and Dermatitis
Doctors and dermatology experts often suggest over-the-counter remedies for common ailments like fingernail and toenail fungus. Tea tree oil might be an even better choice. One study compared the effectiveness of the natural essential oil against the medication clotrimazole commonly used for this type of fungus and sold both over-the-counter and by prescription. It found the two treatments to be essentially equal in their performance.
In fact, research that tested the oil on nearly 100 different types of fungi responsible for fungal infections showed that tea tree oil was able to inhibit the growth of almost all of them. The study shined a light on another potential benefit of the EO as well; it was also able to treat dandruff.
Since dandruff is a form of seborrheic dermatitis, that would raise the possibility that tea tree essential oil could treat other types of dermatitis; initial reports indicate that the story is somewhat complicated, though.
The oil has been shown to help treat the atopic dermatitis known as eczema, and may also be somewhat effective against other forms of contact dermatitis. However, contact dermatitis is also one of the side effects that can develop after repeated use of tea tree essential oil on sensitive skin.
Treating Other Skin Conditions
The benefits of using this essential oil keep coming. We’ve already discussed tea tree oil’s effect on bacteria and fungus, and it turns out that an essential oil cocktail that includes tea tree EO seems to completely inhibit the growth of athlete’s foot, which can be caused by both microbes. The oil is also a potent weapon against acne, shown to be as much as five times more effective than a placebo in head-to-head testing, and just as good as the benzoyl peroxide lotion often prescribed for the condition.
We mentioned earlier that the terpinen-4-ol in this EO has anti-parasitic properties, in addition to its antibiotic and healing abilities. That means it’s a good choice for the prevention and treatment of scabies, a skin rash caused by tiny mites that burrow into the skin and cause intense itching. It’s also able to relieve the swelling and itching caused by other insect bites.
Speaking of itching, there’s evidence that tea tree essential oil can relieve the scaly and itchy skin caused by the autoimmune disease psoriasis, thanks to the oil’s anti-inflammatory power. It’s also been shown to be effective against lice, when combined with lavender essential oil.
Finally, even though you might not think of these as “skin conditions,” tea tree oil can be an effective active ingredient in treatments used to control body odor and bad breath. Many natural products vendors sell manufactured deodorant containing tee tree EO, but you can make your own by combining the essential oil with baking soda, corn starch and coconut oil. Moving north a bit, there’s some evidence that a drop of tea tree oil mixed with warm water can be an effective mouthwash, able to fight the bacteria that forms plaque on teeth and causes tooth decay.
For all of these reasons, you’ll often find tea tree oil blended into all sorts of health care and skin care products including shampoo, toners, lotions, creams and bath bombs.
Tea Tree Oil in Aromatherapy
We alluded to this earlier, but aromatherapy with tea tree essential oil wouldn’t be most people’s first choice for a pleasant-smelling mood setter. It smells fresh and earthy, but to many people it might smell more like medicine than an aphrodisiac.
Even so, there are definite benefits to using tea tree oil in your aromatherapy diffuser.
The antimicrobial properties of terpinen-4-ol can purify the air, helping to keep a room or home clear of many common bacteria and fungi. It can also clear out musty or “spoiled food” odors in a hurry. Inhaling the essential oil can aid the body battle all sorts of invaders while boosting the performance of the immune system. It can provide expectorant properties to help relieve nasal and chest congestion, and antispasmodic properties to help control coughs. And it can boost the performance of other EOs when they’re mixed in a diffuser, like lavender for sleep and anxiety relief, and eucalyptus for pain.
In fact, mixing tea tree oil with several other essential oils in a diffuser is the best way to experience its aromatherapy benefits – without quickly getting sick of the smell. One blend that smells wonderful while still providing a wealth of health and wellness benefits: lemon, eucalyptus, peppermint and tea tree oil. It doesn’t take much tea tree oil to add the EO’s many benefits to those of the other beautifully-scented oils.
Tee Tree Oil for Cleaning
We started out by mentioning tea tree essential oil’s ability to act as a hand sanitizer. That’s one way to utilize the cleansing properties of the oil, but it’s far from the only one.
The reasons why tea tree is so effective at sanitizing have been covered extensively in the previous sections: the terpenes it contains make it a powerful antibacterial, antiviral, and antiseptic agent. Not only can it kill E. coli and S. aureus, but it’s also been shown effective against pneumonia and influenza. No studies have specifically studied tee tree essential oil’s ability to kill the COVID virus, but its antiviral properties against influenza make it a promising choice.
It’s easy to make this hand sanitizer. Just combine lavender and tea tree essential oils with ethyl alcohol and aloe vera gel, for easy application with a squirt bottle. If you substitute water and apple cider vinegar for the alcohol and aloe vera, you’ll have a great all-purpose cleanser that can be used just about anywhere with a spray bottle.
We weren’t sure exactly where to put this one, but “cleaning” seems to fit. Rinsing fruit or vegetables with a mixture of tea tree oil and water can be a great way to clean surface mold from produce. Just be sure to rinse the foods with clean water afterward.
Tea Tree Essential Oil and Safety
Tea tree oil, as you’ve learned, can provide a wide range of health benefits – but it’s not always a benign substance.
We’ve already discussed the need to dilute tea tree essential oil with carrier oil before applying it to the skin. Otherwise, there’s a risk of burning, itching and irritation. Testing any essential oil by applying a little bit to a small area of the skin with a medicine dropper, before more general use, is always a good idea.
It’s possible for some people to become allergic to tea tree EO after repeated use, causing the contact dermatitis that we mentioned earlier. Use should immediately be discontinued if tea tree oil regularly causes an itchy skin rash. And in a few very rare cases, lavender and tea tree essential oils have caused male children to experience develop male prepubertal gynecomastia, a hormone disruption that can cause their breasts to grow. Discontinuing use of the oils solved the issue.
While on the subject of children, tea tree oil can be toxic if swallowed – and the effects are likely to be more pronounced in kids. The oil should never be used internally, and should always be kept out of the reach of children. The essential oil can be even more dangerous (as in fatal) for pets. Tea tree oil should never be given to them in any form, including topical application.
The use of tea tree essential oil in aromatherapy is generally safe, but some people are sensitive to it and may develop headaches or nausea after continued exposure. When using the oil in a diffuser, be aware of the possibility and turn the machine off immediately if you feel queasy, dizzy or come down with a headache.
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