Since we were pimply, oily teenagers we have been exposed to the wonders of tea tree oil. That pungent herbal potion that smelled of disinfectant but worked like a fairy godmother before your big date with ‘Keagan’ (I was 13, it was my first date, it was a group date but it still counts) or before your first job interview… and your second… maybe your third… honestly guys I hope this blog takes off because I’m not that good in interviews.
How much research has gone into the actual measurable benefits of the active ingredient though? What are the potential dangers and misconceptions?
To start off with let’s look at its origin. Tea tree oil is extracted from the Australian plant Melaleuca alternifolia. The clear or slightly yellow oil makes up about about 1-2% of the plant material weight. I’m sure you don’t really want to know much more about the plant. Moving on.
Yes, I’m a chemist and this is where I like to look at the chemistry shapes. The Lego pieces of science.
Tea tree oil is considered an essential oil, which basically means it is a plant-derived oil that contains volatile compounds. The three main components of tea tree oil are (according to the ISO* standard):
- terpinen-4-ol (35-48%)
- γ-terpinene (14-28%)
- α-terpinene (6-12%)
As you can see there is a little bit of a trend here with derivatives of terepene compounds.
Does it work and how?
Tea tree oil has long been used as an anti-bacterial agent. Since acne is mainly caused by excess oil and a bacterium called Cutibacterium acnes (formerly Propionibacterium acnes, formerly Bacillus acnes). Make up your mind scientists – gah!
Anyway, since the bacterium is associated with acne, an anti-bacterial compound could be quite effective for combating pimples. There also seems to be some backing to these claims (other than my friend telling me it works). A few studies have shown it works for a variety of different bacteria and also fungi. So it can also be used for fungal infections – good news people with toenail infection situations…
The way it works is that it disrupts the membrane of the little acne-causing bugs and they leak essential life sustaining compounds and minerals. And they die eventually.
Some recent studies have investigated its effectiveness against inflammation. I’m starting to feel almost emotionally attached to this little oil – you go glen coco, do all the things!!! That being said, more studies have to be carried out to fully claim this one.
IMPORTANT – READ ME
Some essential oils can be dangerous especially for pregnant women and children so rather don’t use them if you are one of these people. Tea tree oil, specifically, is toxic if ingested – so no licking the spoon! Which by the way is number 1 rule of lab safety, right next to “don’t smell the chloroform”. Ok so don’t put this in some hippie health drink.
You should also be wary of high concentrations of tea tree oil (above 5%) if you have sensitive skin (like me) because it can cause dermatitis = gross bumpy red skin.
- Don’t use if you’re pregnant.
- Don’t use it on children – also because they tend to put everything in their mouths.
- Test it on the inside of your arm for a few days before putting it on your face.
- Use diluted tea tree oil, not 100%. If you have the concentrated oil, you can mix it with other oils such as coconut or olive oil (there are many other options).
- Always store the oil in a dark bottle in a cool dark place because you want to keep the oil as stable as possible. Old or improperly stored oil can cause irritation or even an allergic reaction because the compounds change.
References and reading
- Blog post by a dermatologist.
- Journal articles I read:
- Antimicrobial effects of tea-tree oil and its major components on Staphylococcus aureus, Staph. epidermidis and Propionibacterium acnes – A. Raman, U. Weir and S.F. Bloomfield (DOI:10.1111/j.1472-765x.1995.tb01051.x)
- The mode of antimicrobial action of the essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree oil) – Cox et al.
- Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) Oil: a Review of Antimicrobial and other Medicinal Properties – C. F. Carson, K. A. Hammer and T. V. Riley (DOI: 10.1128/CMR.19.1.50-62.2006)
- Others I forgot to take note of…