I’m sure that you have heard of tea tree oil, but do you know how to use it? What is it and where does it come from? Let me start by telling you that tea tree oil may actually be the ‘cure all’ of essential oils. It can be found in everything from toothpaste to household cleaners. It’s available as oil, as a diluted water–miscible preparation, and in soaps, salves, and creams.
Tea Tree Oil Ethnobotany
Amazing tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) has been used for centuries by the native people of Australia to treat wounds and burns, as Australia is the home of Melaleuca alternifolia. The medicinal tea tree should not be confused with the tea plant (Camillia sinensis) that gives us green or black tea. Of the more than three hundred species of the genus Melaleuca, it is M. alternifolia that provides the most favorable healing properties.
Australian explorers searching for valuable red cedar trees in remote areas of New South Wales found that the native aboriginal people in that area used the leaves of the tea tree to treat wounds. They would crush the leaves and apply them to the skin and place a warm mud cast over the area. The explorers followed this example and found the treatment effective. Studies in the 1920s showed that the antiseptic properties of tea tree oil were 13 times stronger than carbolic acid, the main antibacterial in use at that time.
Tea Tree Oil as an Antiseptic
Antiseptics are antimicrobial substances that are applied to intact skin or to wounds to reduce the possibility of infection. They are differentiated from antibiotics by the ability of antibiotics to be transported by the blood and lymphatic systems to destroy bacteria within the body, and from disinfectants which destroy germs found on inert surfaces.
The discovery of antibiotics led away from the use of natural antiseptics. However, things have changed and we are now more conscious of and need to be more cautious of the overuse of antibiotics. There is a very real role here for tea tree oil, then. Tea tree oil is a powerful antimicrobial. It kills many bacteria and fungi. The full strength oil has the ability to penetrate through intact skin to destroy deeper pockets of pus. Studies from the Tea Tree Oil Research Organization of the University of Western Australia show that it is unlikely that bacterial resistance to tea tree oil can develop even despite long term continuous use.
Tea Tree Oil Chemistry and Safety
Tea tree oil is produced by distillation of the leaves. The oil has a pleasant characteristic smell. It contains at least 100 organic compounds consisting mainly of terpinenes, cymones, pinenes, terpineols, cineol, sesquiterpenes and sesquiterpinene alcohols. Indeed, four of the constituents are rarely found anywhere else in nature. None of these substances is especially effective alone, and maximum healing power occurs when they work together synergistically. Australian standards require that the terpinen–4ol content of the oil be greater than 30 percent and the cineol content be less than 15 percent. As with other essential oils, it can be toxic if ingested. Tea tree oil should be used topically and not swallowed. When a product is tested for safety, it is tested to see if it damages genetic material within an organism’s cell (genotoxicity), if it is poisonous to the cells (cytotoxicity), or produces extreme sensitivity to sunlight (phototoxicity). Tea tree oil was shown to be safe in each of these three categories when applied externally.
Tea Tree Oil Uses
Antiseptic: Tea tree oil can be considered a designer, natural antiseptic. Unlike some other chemicals used in antiseptic remedies, it does not cause tissue damage or pain when applied to infected skin. A few drops mixed with water can be used to irrigate wounds, killing any bacteria and fungi whilst promoting healing. Not only does it not hurt when you apply it, but it has a mild anesthetic quality that produces relief. These properties make the full strength oil a necessary part of your arsenal against infections.
Insect repellant: Not only is tea tree oil an ideal antiseptic for scrapes and abrasions, it is also an excellent insect repellant. If you are bitten by an insect, dab the oil onto the bite to prevent infection and to soothe the wound. For more reading and recipes on insect repellents, go to the Herbal Academy of New England website.
Daily hygiene: Tea tree oil soap has a delightful scent and this together with its antiseptic properties makes it very useful to use on a daily basis, especially for strongly scented folks. One or two drops can be applied to your toothbrush and rinsed off to kill bacteria on the toothbrush. It also makes a delightful shampoo, and is one of the ingredients in this Herbal Lice Killer Shampoo.
Sore muscles: After exercise, a few drops of tea tree essential oil in a hot bath helps soothe the muscles while the aroma soothes the soul. A few drops rubbed into sore muscles or joints diminishes discomfort.
Sore throats and stuffy noses: Two drops of the oil in a glass of water can be used as a gargle for sore throats to kill the bacteria and to soothe discomfort. It is important not to swallow it. One drop applied to a bed pillow or under the nose reduces congestion and promotes easier breathing.
Acne: Tea tree oil has been shown to be as effective as benzoyl peroxide in treating acne. It is used as 3 or 4 drops in warm water to wash the face followed by a dab of the full strength oil on each lesion. The ability of the full strength oil to penetrate the skin makes it especially useful in treating boils this way.
Smells: One drop of tea tree oil in a glass of water can be used as a mouth wash for treating bad breath (don’t forget to spit it out).
It is also useful for treating smelly feet. Likewise, it can be used diluted in water for underarm body odor. A few drops in a warm bath are useful for reducing vaginal odor. A few drops mixed with water in a mist bottle kills bad odors in the air by killing bacteria and giving off its characteristic scent.
Difficult to treat nail bed infections: Fungal nail bed infections (paronychiae) are notoriously difficult to treat. A few drops of essential oil applied around the nail has been found in many cases to cure the infection. I recommend the use of tea tree oil in addition to conventional medicine for these stubborn infections.
Cracked and painful heals: Application of tea tree oil is remarkably effective in healing cracked and sore heels.
Clearly, this designer antiseptic in the little brown bottle should be an essential component of each purse, first aid kit, and medicine cabinet!
Essential oils and herbs are both tools we can use in self care. Usually we only need to gently nudge our body into healing, and this is where herbs excel. Educate yourself first before trying to use herbs or essential oils you are unfamiliar with. For further reading on essential oil safety visit these articles on the Herbal Academy blog:
If you are interested in taking your herbal education to the next level, consider studying in a guided herbalism program. The Herbal Academy of New England is enrolling beginner students in the Online Introductory Herbal Course and more experienced herbalists in the Online Intermediate Herbal Course.
Drury, Susan. (1989). Tea Tree Oil: A Medicine Kit in a Bottle. Linfield, NSW: Unity Press.
Levy, Gaye. (2013). The Miracle of Tea Tree Oil: 80 uses for Survival. Retrieved on January 2, 2015 from Backdoor Survival.
Marlene is the Founder and Director of the Herbal Academy of New England, the home of the Online Introductory Herbal Course and the Online Intermediate Herbal Course, and meeting place for Boston area herbalists. Through the school and online herbal classes, Marlene has brought the wild and wonderful world of plant medicine to over 1,000 students across the globe. Photos provided and copyrighted by Herbal Academy of New England.
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