Tea tree oil, a volatile essential oil derived primarily from the Melaleuca alternifolia, a plant native to Australia, can benefit the health and appearance of your skin and hair in a multitude of ways.
Tea tree, also known as melaleuca oil, has earned the loyalty of individuals interested in effective alternatives to conventional disinfectants and cleansers. It makes a phenomenal active ingredient in products like, shampoos, skin creams, face washes, and more.
Tea tree oil is well-known for its medicinal properties. High-quality scientific studies show it has the ability to kill a variety of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It also shows potent anti-inflammatory effects alone. Read on for more information on why tea tree merits a spot in your medicine cabinet.
The Origins of Tea Tree Oil Benefits
Indigenous Australians of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have used tea tree oil for a wide variety of medicinal purposes for centuries. Historically, they’ve crushed the leaves to extract the oil and then either inhaled it for internal use or applied it directly to the skin for external use.
Today, you’ll find tea tree oil being used as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory in North America, Europe, and Australia. Tea tree oil owes its antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties to its high concentration of terpene hydrocarbons, monoterpenes, and sesquiterpenes.
Of the more than 100 distinct chemical components found in tea tree oil, terpinen-4-ol and alpha-terpineol show the strongest activity. Terpinen-4-ol also activates your white blood cells, which can then fight off germs and foreign invaders.
Testing indicates that the volatile hydrocarbons tea tree oil contains can travel through the air, skin, and mucous membranes, meaning that tea tree oil benefits can be accessed by inhaling it as well as by applying it topically, just as the indigenous people of Australia have done for hundreds of years.
The Top 8 Tea Tree Oils Uses for Skin and Hair
Many of the top tea tree oil uses have to do with its ability to fight infections—both internal and external.
1. Fights Acne
Tea tree’s anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects make it an ideal natural remedy for acne. Studies show using tea tree oil as an acne treatment yields impressive results.
A 2017 study published in the Australasian Journal of Dermatology tested tea tree oil against a standard face wash designed to treat mild to moderate facial acne. Individuals in each group used their assigned product twice daily. At the beginning of the study, participants in the tea tree group had an average of 23.7 visible acne lesions, and at its conclusion 12 weeks later, they had an average of 10.7—that’s an over 50% percent reduction!
As their skin adapted to the treatment, mild side effects like dryness, peeling, and some scaling occurred, but all undesirable reactions cleared up on their own. The authors concluded that “the use of the tea tree oil products significantly improved mild to moderate acne and that the products were well tolerated.”
Other studies have found similarly promising results. One randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that a 5% tea tree oil gel was 3 times more effective than the placebo when it came to reducing the number of acne lesions and nearly 6 times more effective at reducing overall acne severity! And that study noted comparable side effects for tea tree and the placebo.
Another study tested tea tree against benzoyl peroxide, the most common conventional acne treatment. The results of the single-blind, randomized clinical trial showed that for the 124 participants, a 5% tea tree oil gel was just as effective as a 5% benzoyl peroxide lotion. Both significantly reduced the number of open and closed acne comedones. Better still, participants in the tea tree oil group experienced fewer side effects.
You can buy acne treatments that use tea tree as an active ingredient at many natural grocery stores, online retailers, and even, depending on where you live, your average drugstore. It’s also quite simple to make your own homemade tea tree oil acne remedies.
2. Relieves Dry Scalp
While a dry scalp isn’t dangerous, it can be quite uncomfortable. And if you develop dandruff, it can also be a bit embarrassing. There’s less research so far on tea tree oil for hair and scalp health, but what does exist is quite promising.
According to a 4-week study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, thanks to its antifungal properties, tea tree oil can kill off a yeast that lives on the scalp and causes dandruff. The randomized, single-blind, parallel-group study compared the effects of a 5% tea tree oil shampoo to a placebo. At the end of the study, the participants in the tea tree oil group had 41% improvement in dandruff severity! They also reported reduced itchiness and greasiness.
You can easily find shampoos that include tea tree oil, or you can simply add a few drops of tea tree oil to a dollop of shampoo as needed.
3. Speeds Wound Healing
Minor scrapes and wounds can become more serious problems if germs penetrate the break in your skin, enter your bloodstream, and cause an infection. Because tea tree oil has proven antimicrobial activity and anti-inflammatory effects, it can help treat and disinfect cuts and abrasions to kill off infectious bacteria.
Tea tree oil also helps wounds heal more quickly. A study published in 2015 found that tea tree shows great promise when it comes to reducing inflammation and rapidly shrinking the size of wounds. And a separate study matched participants to compare the effects of a standard wound dressing to one containing tea tree oil. The researchers found striking differences that they believe merit follow-up investigation.
If you’re interested in using tea tree to make an all-natural wound disinfectant or homemade wound ointment you can find many helpful tutorials online.
4. Soothes Skin Inflammation
It appears that tea tree oil can help calm inflamed skin. Many of the studies to date have looked at the effects of tea tree in relieving inflammation related to contact dermatitis—which occurs when your skin touches an allergen, leading to red, itchy, sometimes painful outbreaks—and insect bites.
A study published in Inflammation Research, a peer-reviewed medical journal, examined the ability of tea tree to treat nickel-induced contact dermatitis. The authors found that it had significant anti-inflammatory effects and shows promise as a treatment option.
Separate findings from a study that compared the effects of tea tree oil to standard treatments for contact dermatitis found that it reduced symptoms by 40%, making it approximately twice as effective as the other medications.
And when it comes to bug bites, a study found tea tree can reduce the itching, redness, and swelling that develop when your body releases histamines in response to the bug’s saliva. Tea tree oil appears to be especially good at reducing the size of bug bites.
Most recipes for tea tree oil treatments for skin inflammation recommend mixing several drops into a carrier oil of your choice. Undiluted tea tree essential oil may cause or exacerbate skin irritation.
5. Eases Symptoms of Psoriasis
Psoriasis, an autoimmune condition characterized by outbreaks of red, itchy, scaly skin, cannot be cured at this time. There are, however, treatments that can address symptoms of this chronic skin condition.
Since tea tree has strong anti-inflammatory effects, scientists decided to explore its use as a potential treatment for psoriasis. They found that terpinen-4-ol, the major active ingredient in tea tree oil, has promise as a novel new option for relieving psoriasis symptoms.
As with tea tree remedies for skin inflammation, you’ll likely want to dilute tea tree in a carrier oil prior to application.
6. Treats Bacterial, Fungal, and Viral Infections
Researchers are still exploring the benefits of tea tree oil as a means of fighting infections ranging from MRSA to fungal infections such as athlete’s foot (tinea pedis). A scientific review of tea tree oil’s medicinal properties showed that it can suppress the proliferation of bacteria including Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, Haemophilus influenzae, Streptococcus pyogenes, and Streptococcus pneumoniae, which can cause severe infections such as:
- Urinary tract infections
- Strep throat
- Respiratory illnesses
- Bloodstream infections
- Sinus infections
The review also found that, due to its antifungal properties, tea tree can prevent and treat fungal infections such as athlete’s foot, jock itch, toenail fungus, and candida outbreaks.
The results of a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study conducted by researchers in the Department of Dermatology at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown, New South Wales, Australia, expand on claims about the ability of tea tree to treat the symptoms of athlete’s foot. Between 68% and 72% of participants treated with tea tree solutions had a “marked clinical response” after 4 weeks of treatment, compared to 38% of participants in the control group. And for approximately 64% of participants, the infection was completely resolved.
As for onychomycosis, or nail fungus, tea tree oil has similar effects to clotrimazole 1% solution (Fungoid, Lotrimin, Lotrimin AF).
Australian tea tree oil also shows impressive antiviral activity. Lab studies show it can inhibit the influenza virus as well as recurrent herpes simplex virus. Its exact mechanism of action has yet to be identified, but three compounds show clear antiviral activity: terpinen-4-ol, terpinolene, and alfa-terpineol.
In addition to its beneficial influence on cold sores, tea tree oil can also rid you of the virus that causes unsightly warts. One case study found that topical tea tree treatments can cause a wart to completely disappear in just 12 days.
7. Eradicates Head Lice
In much the same way that many long-used antibiotics are becoming less effective, the usual insecticidal compounds used to treat lice no longer work the way they once did as lice have become resistant to them. This makes it important to develop alternative treatments.
At least one study has examined the use of tea tree oil for lice and found highly encouraging results. The researchers discovered that a 1% concentration of tea tree oil had a 100% mortality rate against head lice after 30 minutes of exposure. At a higher concentration, tea tree oil was also able to prevent up to 50% of lice eggs from hatching.
You can find instructions for how to use tea tree oil for lice eradication by conducting a simple internet search.
8. Kills off Scabies Mites
As is true for lice and numerous other conditions, traditional treatment options for scabies, a contagious skin disease caused by an infestation of the itch mite Sarcoptes scabiei that results in rashes, itching, and blisters, have begun to fail, spurring scientists to seek out alternatives.
Researchers from the Menzies School of Health Research and Northern Territory Clinical School at Flinders University in Darwin, Australia conducted an experiment to test the use of tea tree as a natural scabies treatment. They found that a 5% tea tree oil solution was a highly effective scabies remedy. It clearly reduced the survival rate of scabies mites and shows promise as a means of healing scabies on the skin’s surface as well as beneath the skin.
Three Cheers for Tea Tree
As an over-the-counter antifungal medication, acne treatment, wound healer, and itch reliever, tea tree essential oil can't be beat. This all-purpose does come with some caution.
Always dilute tea tree oil in a carrier oil, such as jojoba oil, and test on a small patch of skin to monitor for possible allergic reactions.
Essential oil of melaleuca should also never be ingested, as it is intended for topical application only, and it is important to keep out of reach of children. You can, however, mix a drop of tea tree oil in with your mouthwash to help protect against bad breath. Just be sure to swish and spit.
If you are suffering from a skin infection such as nail fungus, give tea tree oil a try, but if the fungal infection persists, contact a health care provider for further treatment.