Tea tree’s leaves once were used to make tea, which is how the plant received its name.
A young mother was at her wits’ end about her 4-year-old son’s nagging case of nail psoriasis. A potentially disfiguring, lifelong skin disease, nail psoriasis can leave the ends of fingers misshapen from silvery-white mounds of dead skin covering the nails. (Psoriasis also can attack the knees, scalp and other areas.)
As you might imagine, the mother was eager to rescue her child from the embarrassment of his condition. She rushed him to a doctor, who prescribed various topical medications. Not one of them proved effective. Next, she tried tar treatments, also to no avail. After a year of fruitless doctor visits, the young mother decided to step out of the bounds of traditional therapies.
With no other options at hand, she visited a local herbalist. The herbalist recommended the mother apply pure tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) essential oil drops to the nail area at night and to cover her child’s hands with mittens to allow the oil to penetrate. After two weeks, the psoriasis vanished. Fourteen years later, her son has not suffered a single outbreak of the disease. Suffice it to say, the mother, who happens to be the author of this article, was convinced of tea tree oil’s amazing powers.
Meet Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil comes from the leaves of the Melaleuca tree, which is native to New South Wales, Australia, and also grows in Asia. With strong antifungal and antiseptic properties, tea tree is a common ingredient in many natural skin- and body-care products and can help alleviate an array of skin conditions, such as dandruff, athlete’s foot and acne.
According to noted herbalist Steven Foster, interest in tea tree oil emerged in the 1920s, when Australian researchers discovered the oil was a more effective antiseptic than carbolic acid, a well-known germicide of the time. Anitra C. Carr, Ph.D., a research associate at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, says the leaves once were used for tea, which is how the plant received its name. Carr says the great explorer Captain Cook used the leaves to brew a strong tea for his sailors.
Tea tree’s healing ingredients also are antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. No wonder tea tree is prized for its medicinal abilities. Studies suggest tea tree oil is effective in fighting dandruff and alleviating many other skin and fungal infections, including head lice, acne, warts, inflammations, ringworm, thrush and athlete’s foot. The list might seem unbelievable, but experts and first-time users alike have reported many success stories.
Tea Tree: Backed By Research
Researcher Carr, in her article “Tea Trees and their Therapeutic Properties,” cites several promising studies that compared tea tree oil with conventional medications for the following conditions:
Acne. The topical application of 5 percent tea tree oil versus 5 percent benzoyl peroxide was investigated for treating common acne (acne vulgaris) caused by the microorganism Propionibacterium acnes. Both compounds reduced the number of acne lesions, but the tea tree oil worked more slowly, possibly because the concentration used was too low. Tea tree oil produced fewer side effects than the benzoyl peroxide.
Athlete’s foot. The use of 10 percent tea tree oil cream has been compared with 1 percent tolnaflate and placebo creams in the treatment of athlete’s foot (tinea pedis). This is the most common form of superficial dermal infection caused by several related fungi. Patients in the tea tree group and tolnaflate group had significant clinical improvement, but the tea tree oil did not cure the condition. However, as with the acne study, the concentration of the oil might have been too low. Unlike the oil, tolnaflate use resulted in minor skin irritation.
Toenail disease. In another study, the topical application of 1 percent clotrimazole solution or 100 percent tea tree oil for the treatment of toenail disease (onychomycosis) resulted in nearly identical improvement.
Gynecological conditions. Vaginal infections, such as trichomonal vaginitis, have been treated successfully with tea tree oil. Anaerobic (bacterial) vaginosis usually is treated with medications like metronidazole, but these drugs can cause toxic side effects, and long-term recurrence of infection is very high. Topical treatment with tea tree oil might be more effective because the abnormal bacterial flora is replaced by normal healthy bacteria.
Dandruff. According to a study conducted at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown, Australia, not cited by Carr, “5 percent tea tree oil appears to be effective and well-tolerated in the treatment of dandruff.”
What the Doctor Ordered
Andrew Weil, M.D., a leader in integrative medicine, states on his website that tea tree oil can be applied full-strength to boils and other localized infections. According to Weil, a 10 percent solution (about 1 1/2 tablespoons to a cup of warm water) can be used to rinse and clean infected wounds. Weil also recommends a tea tree oil shampoo for folliculitis, which can be caused by bacteria or fungi.
According to the American Cancer Society, tea tree oil can be dissolved in water or used full strength and applied directly to the skin using a cotton ball. Tea tree oil is safe and natural, and has very few side effects, but it should be used properly, according to manufacturers’ instructions or the advice of your health-care provider.
A few people with sensitive skin have had an allergic reaction to tea tree oil. Avoid using it around your eyes. Avoid using tea tree oil if you are pregnant, and never ingest the oil—it is meant for external use only.
The Last Word
Before visiting the herbalist in the hope of treating my son’s psoriasis, I had never heard of tea tree oil. Today, I still receive curious looks when mentioning the miraculous effects tea tree oil had on my son’s disease. Although psoriasis is a lifelong skin disease, my son has never suffered an outbreak since his first treatment. Since then, I have experimented with tea tree oil and successfully wiped out my own case of severe dandruff.
Now, I always have a bottle of pure tea tree oil in my medicine cabinet. When I tell others about the many uses of tea tree oil, they usually want to give it a try, too. If you or a family member suffers from dandruff or another skin malady, consider tea tree oil. In the end, you have nothing to lose and much to gain.
Tea Tree Scalp Wash
Herbalists recommend the following natural home remedy for dandruff: Add 1 to 2 drops pure tea tree essential to a mild (preferably natural) shampoo in the palm of the hand. Lather into scalp for about 5 minutes. Rinse and follow with conditioner, if desired.
Tea Tree Skin Patch Test
Here’s a simple test to ensure you are not one of the rare people allergic to tea tree oil:
1. Apply a drop to the skin.
2. If the skin becomes red, irritated or inflamed, it most likely is an allergic reaction. If this occurs, discontinue use.
Where to Buy:
Whether it’s clearing up acne or soothing a dry scalp, tea tree is an herb of all trades. Rev up your morning routine with tea tree products to boost your skin and hair health. Click on the IMAGE GALLERY to view these products.
• Organic bar soap by Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, $4.19.
• Facial cleansing pads by Desert Essence, $6.99.
• Tea tree essential oil by Aura Cacia, $8.32.
• Calming Conditioner by Nature’s Gate, $8.29.
• Deodorant by JASON Natural, $6.17.
• Toothpaste with fennel by Desert Essence, $6.99.
Wendy Gist is a New Mexico-based freelance writer who also is a long-time herb lover.