Tea tree oil, not to be confused with tea oil, is a plant oil concentrate extracted from the leaves of the Australian tea tree. Scientifically known by the name Melaleuca alternifolia, the tea tree is a member of the myrtle family, and is indigenous to New South Wales. It received its name from 18th century sailors, who were intrigued by the smell of nutmeg that emanates from the plant. There are many tea tree oil benefits, which have made it a staple in households around the world.
What Is Tea Tree Oil?
Chemically speaking, tea tree oil is not actually an oil, in that it does not share a common chemical structure with most plant-derived seed oils. Instead, the name tea tree oil follows the naturopathic definition, which includes all concentrated plant extracts, similar to the camphor used in Vicks Vapor Rub. Although tea tree oil is a mixture that includes approximately 98 different compounds, the primary component is turpinen-4-ol, which is also the primary component in essential oil of nutmeg. Turpinen-4-ol falls into the family of compounds known as turpenes.
Turpenes are a varying class of compounds found in many of the essential plant oils. The first commercially important compounds were derived from pine and pistachio trees, and were used in everything from medicinal applications to industrial chemical synthesis.
Tea Tree Oil Benefits
Aboriginal Australians have taken advantage of the benefits of tea tree oil for centuries. Oil from crushed leaves was originally inhaled to treat general lung and throat infections. It later found application as a topical antiseptic to treat a wide range of skin conditions. More recently, scientific studies have shown tea tree oil to be beneficial against a number of maladies. These days people use tea tree oil in acne products, on cold sores, psoriasis, and even warts. The American Cancer Society considers pure tea tree oil to be toxic when consumed, as it has been documented to cause nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, coma, and a host of other nasty conditions. So if you’re going to have it in your household, be sure to keep it away from pets and children.
In today’s world, tea tree oil is not usually used in its pure form. The most common means for use include the following:
- Tea Tree Oil Shampoo
- Tea Tree Oil Soap
- Tea Tree Oil Lotion
- Diluted Tea Tree Oil Sprays
Obviously, it finds widespread use as a topical agent. Treating conditions such as warts, acne, and cold sores with tea tree oil is a common occurrence. While tea tree oil’s antiseptic properties have been well documented, and although large scale clinical trials are lacking, small scale studies have shown tea tree oil treatment effective for other skin conditions, including acne, dandruff, nail fungus, and athlete’s foot. It can also be used to relieve discomfort from insect stings, and mild spider bites symptoms.
Despite its acceptance, and the generalized belief in the safety of “natural” products, its important to recognize that tea tree oil is a powerful, and potentially dangerous material, if not used cautiously. As many as 3 in 50 people could experience contact dermatitis when exposed to a 1% solution of tea tree oil, and even people who aren’t allergic may experience a rash if exposed to the pure oil. Aged tea tree oil is more likely to cause problems than freshly prepared oil. It has also been reported that exposing boys to tea tree oil may cause growth of breast tissue, and although this study was widely criticized, the report still exists.
More recently, it has been suggested that tea tree oil may have benefits in fighting viruses and bacteria. Screening studies have shown it to be active against MRSA, and a host of other nasty other bugs that have developed resistance against some of mankind’s most potent antibiotics. Although it isn’t safe for internal use, it may eventually find applicability for topical treatments.
The many tea tree oil benefits have been proven out anecdotally for hundreds of years, if not longer. As science searches for new ways to combat some of the diseases and conditions that have developed resistance to modern day treatments, there is a resurgence of interest in these older materials. Tea tree oil is one of those that holds promise, and it will be interesting to watch as its utility in modern day life unfolds.
Published June 2011. Updated November 2011.
- “Tea Tree Oil” National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Accessed November 2011.
- NIH News. National Institute of Health. Accessed November 2011.
- “A Comparative Study Of Tea Tree Oil vs Benzoyl Peroxide in the Treatment of Acne.” Med J Aust. 1990 Oct 15;153(8):455-8.
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