There are several skincare ingredients that feature in my morning and evening routines. Because I tend to be a skeptic by nature, most of these ingredients come with solid scientific backing. Alpha and beta hydroxy acids, retinoids, hyaluronic acid—these are the things that I swear by. Not much gets me narrowing my eyes like claims such as “nourishing for your skin.”
Skin does not eat.
I eat. About once a month, I spend a day eating all day long when I really ought to behave myself and stop feeding my emotions. But my skin? It does not eat. Anything I smear on it penetrates the top 15 to 20 layers of cells, at best.
But I’m headed off on a tangent, so let’s get to the point, shall we? There’s one skincare ingredient that has had me skeptical for years, and that’s tea tree oil. Honestly, I don’t know a whole lot about tea tree oil or how it is supposed to benefit skin, but I’ve seen so many wild claims about it that I’ve just kind of ignored it all this time.
Until last Monday, anyway, when I happened to be wandering through the grocery store and spotted a bottle of pure organic tea tree oil. You’d best believe I impulse bought the heck out of it. I’ve been patch testing it along my jaw for a few days. No reactions so far!
And now? Now we’re going to learn about tea tree oil together—uses, scientific benefits, and so on.
Where Does Tea Tree Oil Come From?
Let’s start off by stating the not obvious, which is that tea tree oil is not the same thing as the tea that you drink. These are two different plants entirely. The drinking kind of tea comes from Camellia sinensis while tea tree oil is harvested from Melaleuca alternifolia. That’s why you’ll often find this essential oil referred to as Melaleuca oil. This type of tea tree is small, and it grows native in Australia, specifically in Queensland and New South Wales.
Uses for Tea Tree Oil
You’ve probably seen tons of buzz about this stuff, right? Claims I’ve seen range across the spectrum. Tea tree oil supposedly treats everything from dandruff to acne, scabies, fungal infections, lice, herpes, insect bites—you name it, if there’s something wrong with your skin, somebody out there will say that this oil is the cure.
The inner skeptic in me is screaming right now. Not saying that tea tree oil doesn’t work for some of this stuff—just that I’m unwilling to blindly believe without a bit of research.
Let’s start with…
There actually is some limited research that shows tea tree oil is helpful for eczema or contact dermatitis. In one study, tea tree oil reduced allergic dermatitis by more than 40%, outperforming other dermatitis relief products like zinc oxide.
Infections, Wounds and Antimicrobial Activity
Here we go. There is lots and lots of research surrounding this particular topic. This is one of the biggest claims many make about tea tree oil, that it is useful in treating infected wounds and that it kills bacteria and fungus.
So what’s the truth? Jury’s still out on this one. The thing is, there are many studies about this very thing—but most all of them are preliminary research based on small sample sizes with limited testing conditions.
For instance, take a look at this study. Researchers used tea tree oil in a wound dressing on ten patients who had staph infections. The result was promising in that nine of the ten patients displayed decreased healing time—but I don’t see anything in the study about controls. No patients with staph infections who were given a placebo instead so that researchers could compare healing times. Plus, it’s only ten patients, which is a very small sample size.
And here is a review of much of the literature published to date on tea tree oil. The basic point to take from this review is just what I’ve said—results are promising, but there is nothing conclusive as yet.
Tea tree oil is one of the most highly recommended acne cures out there. But does it work? Again, I have to cite the fact that research looks promising, but there is still nothing conclusive.
However, I would say that if you’re dealing with acne, then tea tree oil is worth a shot. That’s because tea tree oil may well have anti-inflammatory properties, and because it does show promise as an antimicrobial. What this means for you is that tea tree oil could reduce the redness caused by pimples, and if the acne is bacterial in origin, then it may help kill that bacteria, thus preventing breakouts.
As an Antioxidant
Like many botanicals, tea tree oil does contain antioxidants, and antioxidants are a wonderful thing for your skin. The reason for that is because they interfere with free radicals—and free radicals are nasty business. They oxidize on your skin, which causes cell damage. Cell damage leads to premature aging along with a greater potential for issues like hyper pigmentation or even skin cancer. So if you want to use this stuff as an antioxidant, it may be worth your while.
However, I would also say that there are probably better antioxidants out there. For one thing, tea tree oil can cause dermatitis on its own—more on this below. Two, there are antioxidants available that have a vast wealth of scientific research behind them and are definitively proven as effective. These include things like vitamin C, retinol, resveratrol, niacinamide, polyphenols, and more. If free radicals and environmental damage concern you, I’d look into some of these other antioxidants first.
Patch testing is something we should always do any time we try new skincare products. I mean, nobody wants to try out a new PM cream, then wake up the next morning with the itchiest, reddest face ever, right? So yeah, patch test and avoid this blunder!
And that’s particularly true if you want to try tea tree oil. This product has been shown to cause lots of skin reactions. Maybe not in most people, but it does seem more common than reactions caused by other, gentler products.
The best way to patch test is to do just what I’ve been doing: Use a small amount of the product on an inconspicuous area. Along your jawbone close to your ear, for instance. That way, if you do have a reaction (and if your hair is long enough) it’s easy to hide the red, scaly patch.
How to Use Tea Tree Oil
I can’t reiterate enough: Tea tree oil is strong. It should not be used in 100% concentrations. Some people do use it this way and report no problems, but others who use 100% tea tree oil report itchy, burning, dry skin. That, and this oil has a very strong scent. At full strength, the smell alone is overpowering.
The best way to use tea tree oil is to dilute it with a carrier oil. Concentrations should be between 2.5% to 10% so that you can get the maximum benefit with the least risk of irritation.
What carrier oil is best to use? That’s up to you! But just for fun, here are a few of my favorites:
So there you have it! That’s what I’ve learned about tea tree oil. A lot of inconclusive data, but enough promise that if you’re into experimenting with skincare ingredients like I am, then this one is worth a try.
Want to check out makeup tutorials or read more about skincare? Click here for the Cosmetics & Skincare archive!