Tea tree is a familiar old friend. You have an unspoken connection. It doesn’t matter how many years go by, you can pick up your friendship where you left off and talk.
Tea tree was one of my first essential oils, along with lavender, and so it seems appropriate to wrap-up my aromatherapy repertoire with this well-known oil. In fact, tea tree is so well known that it needs no introduction. It is one of the few essential oils, again, like lavender, that can be used undiluted on the skin and it is often used as an ‘on-the-spot’ spot treatment!
Little tree, big post
Australian aborigines have known about the medicinal properties of tea tree for centuries (note, I never use the word ‘medicinal’ lightly when talking about aromatherapy or other complementary therapies) and would crush its leaves to drink as a tea to relieve colds and headaches. Tea tree oil has earned its reputation as a medicinal oil – it really is powerfully anti-bacterial, antiseptic, anti-microbial and anti-fungal, and still remarkably safe to use on skin.
Tea tree vs super-bugs
Tea tree oil has been getting a lot of attention recently for its effective anti-microbial action against staph infections (Staphylococcus aureus) and even the hospital super-bug MRSA. Warnke et al state:
‘First used by the Australian Aborigines, Tea tree oil and Eucalyptus oil (and several other essential oils) have each demonstrated promising efficacy against several bacteria and have been used clinically against multi-resistant strains… As proven in vitro, essential oils represent a cheap and effective antiseptic topical treatment option even for antibiotic-resistant strains as MRSA and antimycotic-resistant Candida species’
Warnke PH, Becker ST, Podschun R et al. The battle against multi-resistant strains: Renaissance of antimicrobial essential oils as a promising force to fight hospital-acquired infections. J Craniomaxillofac Surg. 2009 Oct;37(7):392–7. Epub 2009 May 26.
While more research is needed, use of tea tree oil against increasingly antibiotic-resistant staph infections and MRSA looks very promising. Thompson G et al state:
‘Washing with 5% tea tree oil (TTO) has been shown to be effective in removing MRSA on the skin. However, to date, no trials have evaluated the potential of TTO body wash to prevent MRSA colonization or infection. In addition, detecting MRSA by usual culture methods is slow. A faster method using a PCR assay has been developed in the laboratory, but requires evaluation in a large number of patients’
Thompson G, Blackwood B, McMullan R et al. A randomized controlled trial of tea tree oil (5%) body wash versus standard body wash to prevent colonization with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in critically ill adults: research protocol. BMC Infect Dis. 2008 Nov 28;8:161.
Other essential oils such as lavender, eucalyptus, thyme and lemongrass have also been studied for efficacy against staph and MRSA. Research suggests that certain blends of essential oils work synergistically for increased anti-microbial action against super-bugs.
Tea tree blends for staph infection
Staph infections are quite common and often affect the skin. I have deliberately not listed the likely causes or symptoms of staph infection because online information cannot be used to diagnose illness or disease. The primary source of treatment for a staph infection, and certainly for MRSA, is from a GP or hospital doctor who will first diagnose and then prescribe antibiotic ointments or oral antibiotics depending on the severity of the infection. Despite wide-spread media coverage of growing antibiotic resistance, in most cases a minor staph infection will respond well to one, or perhaps two, courses of antibiotics.
Tea tree oil may be used to complement primary medical treatment without reducing the effectiveness of prescribed antibiotics. If you have a staph skin infection use a 5% dilution of tea tree oil to disinfect the area twice daily, ie morning and evening. The following blend uses olive oil as its base, which also has anti-microbial activity:
- 30ml extra virgin olive oil
- 30 drops tea tree oil
If your staph infection is persistant, try a synergistic blend to disinfect your skin twice daily:
- 30ml extra virgin olive oil
- 10 drops tea tree
- 10 drops lavender
- 10 drops eucalyptus
These are extremely powerful blends, so please patch test before using liberally on your skin.
Avoid antibiotic resistance – listen to your doctor
It is important that you complete your prescribed course of antibiotics even if it appears that the infection has improved or has gone away. Failure of patients to complete antibiotic courses or failure to take the treatment as instructed by the doctor can lead to bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics and may reduce the effectiveness of subsequent prescriptions.
Tea tree oil in skin care
The beauty industry is getting wise to the awesomeness of tea tree oil. Research by dermatologists suggests that tea tree is as effective against acne as over-the-counter treatment benzoyl peroxide, but without the undesirable side effects of skin reddening, dryness and irritation. Some studies suggest that tea tree oil must be used at 5% dilution or more to have efficacy against acne and the essential oil has long been used neat to dab on spots. However, tea tree may irritate more sensitive skins, so remember that patch test! It should also be noted that, like most natural remedies, the essential oil’s actions may require a little more time than over-the-counter or prescribed treatments to take noticeable effect.
Clear skin facial wash
- 20ml aloe vera gel
- 10ml extra virgin olive oil
- 30 drops tea tree
Whisk the aloe vera and olive oil in a bowl until a white gel is produced. Add the tea tree oil and whisk again. This should make 2–3 applications of a facial wash.
Anti-aging facial oil
Tea tree has been discovered to be an effective anti-aging oil. It conditions, moisturises and renews skin, encouraging a higher turnover of skin cells that leads to a fresher, brighter and more youthful-looking complexion. It is even thought to help heal skin from sun damage and promote a more even tone.
- 30ml rosehip oil
- 8 drops tea tree
- 6 drops lavender
- 4 drops neroli
The list of blends for which you can use tea tree is endless. Experiment. You can add tea tree oil to almost any cosmetic base – add a couple drops to unscented body washes or face creams for clear skin or to shampoos and conditioners to tackle dandruff or oily hair. Tea tree also blends well with many other essential oils: clary sage, eucalyptus, geranium, lavender, lemongrass, manuka, myrtle, marjoram (sweet and spanish), pine and rosemary to name a few.
A complete list of the medicinal properties of this remarkable essential oil is provided in the profile below. For example, tea tree is highly anti-fungal which makes it a useful treatment for athlete’s foot.
Strengthening and fortifying
A lesser-known property of tea tree is its strengthening effect on the mind and emotions. The essential oil is uplifting and can help to relieve depression. However, its scent is quite medicinal and it is less popular as a vaporising oil than essential oils such as grapefruit or rose.
Living with aromatherapy and a bit of bees
As an aromatherapist, I studied over 80 essential oils but in practice I only regularly use the 23 oils listed in ’Living with essential oils’, and that is sufficient. I occasionally dabble with basil, thyme, yarrow, lemongrass, bergamot and others, but usually to complement a blend of my primary oils. There are over 100 essential oils for an aromatherapist to choose, such as manuka, plai and may chang, even vanilla. I recently discovered pineapple essential oil online and hope to try that soon. I am not sure about the therapeutic properties, but I bet it smells divine. Mmm, pineapple-scented coconut hair oil… My next posts on aromatherapy will be blended with those on beekeeping as I start my series on ‘Living with bees’.
This post is dedicated to Anna, a familiar old friend
Profile of tea tree
Latin name: Melaleuca alternifolia
Plant family: Myrtaceae
Plant type: medicinal
Perfume note: top
Extraction: steam or water distillation of the leaves and twigs
Botany and origins: small tree with needle-like leaves and yellow or purple-hued flowers native to Australia, mainly New South Wales
Chemical properties/active components: high in alcohols, which is attributed to the oil’s both powerful and gentle actions; its constituent 1.8 cineole is attributed to its anti-fungal action; terpinen-4-ol is attributed to its anti-microbial action
Blends with: clary sage, eucalyptus, geranium, lavender, lemongrass, manuka, myrtle, marjoram (sweet and spanish), pine and rosemary
Key actions: broad spectrum anti-microbial activity against bacteria, viruses and fungi; analgesic, anti-depressant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, expectorant
Common conditions: efficacy against Staphylococcus aureus and MRSA; acne, abscess, athlete’s foot, blisters, burns, cold sores, dandruff, herpes, insect bites, rashes (including nappy), verrucae, warts, wounds, spots; colds, chickenpox, fever, flu; asthma, bronchitis, catarrh, coughs, sinusitis, mouth infections; thrush, vaginitis, cystitis, pruritis; varicose veins; depression
Contraindications: non-toxic and non-irritating; tea tree received bad press a few years ago for causing skin sensitisation although this was found to be caused due to excessive use, if you have sensitive skin patch test before use. Avoid during first three months of pregnancy
Further reading: This profile is based on my own experience and knowledge of using this essential oil. Other aromatherapy texts will list a wider range of properties and uses. The most comprehensive essential oil profiles that I have read are given by Salvatore Battaglia’s The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, Second Edition, published by Perfect Potion, 2003, Australia. ISBN: 0-6464-2896-9