Originally published on Guide to Aromatherapy
tea tree oil
Tea tree oil is the essential oil extracted from the Australian tea tree (or ti tree), Melaleuca alternifolia. Don’t confuse this with manuka, sometimes called the New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum scoparium), nor with the tea bush from which we get our daily cuppa (Camellia sinensis). Manuka is a member of the same family as the tea tree, but the tea bush is not.
Tea tree leaves were actually being used as a healing tea by native Australians (as well as for other remedies) even before the continent was first colonized by Europeans. With typical arrogance, this knowledge was ignored until the early 1920s, when an Australian chemist called Arthur Penfold first extracted the essential oil and discovered that it was not only a very effective way to disinfect wounds, but that it stopped fungal infections in their tracks.
Tea tree oil became a worldwide success until the start of the Second World War, when supplies were diverted for use by field hospitals and civilian use virtually ceased. By the time the war was over tea tree oil had been forgotten, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that it was rediscovered and again started to be used around the world.
More recent studies have shown that tea tree oil is a natural antiseptic, anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal, that works even at fairly low dilution levels (5%). It’s even been shown to work against MRSA. Partly because of its strong fragrance, which is similar to eucalyptus, it has also become popular as a treatment for respiratory problems.
Unfortunately, recent research has found that regular use of tea tree and lavender oils in boys before puberty can lead to gynecomastia (breast enlargement) and can interfere with their sexual development [source
]. The same thing can occur in adult males, but with less serious effects, since their sexual characteristics are already established. It’s therefore advisable to restrict use of the oils and products (eg. shampoo) that contain either of these oils for boys except in occasional emergency situations.
As with all essential oils, tea tree oil should never be taken internally, even though you may see this recommended elsewhere. Essential oils are highly concentrated and can cause permanent damage if used in this way, even if you think you have diluted them. Be safe and use them as intended, in massage blends and diffusers, and keep them out of the reach of children at all times.
Tea tree oil uses
As you might expect, tea tree is often used on skin infections and pimples, but it is much more useful than that. Acne, which is caused by a bacteria which is resistant to many other treatments, responds well to tea tree oil ointment. Burns are another application, and because of its anti-viral properties, tea tree oil is often used undiluted for herpes/cold sores, warts and plantar warts (verrucas), all of which are caused by viruses.
Fungal infections such as ringworm (tinea), nail fungus, athlete’s foot, foot rot in animals and candida (thrush) can also be treated with tea tree oil or products based on it.
One of the most important uses from a parent’s point of view is to treat and prevent diaper rash (nappy rash). Many moms swear by it and say that it works much better than any conventional remedy they’ve tried, and carries on working, unlike some treatments.
In an emergency, tea tree oil can be used neat, but otherwise for these purposes you can use the oil diluted at 1 drop of tea tree to every 2 ml of your preferred base oil. This will avoid any problems with sensitivity to the neat oil, which is in any case quite unusual so long as you make sure to buy tea tree oil of good quality.
As a hair treatment, tea tree oil not only helps prevent dandruff but also kills cooties (head lice). For the former, tea tree oil shampoo used regularly is probably all you need, while to treat the cooties, just mix a teaspoon of tea tree oil with one of the heavier carrier oils like grape seed (cheapest) or olive oil, warm it up (I stand it on the radiator for 20 minutes or so) and then apply carefully, making sure that the entire scalp and every hair is coated. Wrap the treated head up in a towel and leave it for a couple of hours, then wash it out. You will probably need to wash it at least twice to get all the oil out, but you shouldn’t find any live critters after you’re done.
You can also use tea tree oil to treat canker sores (mouth ulcers), if you can stand the taste. Just dab the sore with a little tea tree oil on a cotton tip swab, but try not to swallow too much oil as it isn’t good for you. Alternatively, try using a mouthwash that contains tea tree oil, which is likely to be a lot less overpowering.
To treat bacterial vaginosis (BV), use a douche made from 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of tea tree oil to 2 cups (475 ml/16 fl oz) of water daily for 6 weeks.
Use tea tree oil in a diffuser, in the bath, or a few drops on the pillow or a tissue to treat colds, flu and respiratory infections.
I offer many tea tree products, from oils to ointments and more in my online shop.