If you have ever had a conversation with someone who swears by essential oils, they have probably prescribed tea tree oil for your ailment at least once—or four hundred times. Whether you complained of a headache or dared to attend their party with a zit the size of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, they greeted you with an eye roll and an exasperated, “Just use some tea tree oil!”
Tea tree oil is widely considered to be the most versatile of essential oils, having earned itself a spot in pretty much every at-home remedy on the planet. But where did this natural ‘Renaissance Man’ of an oil come from?
Tea tree oil is thought to have made its appearance in the western world in around 1770, when British sailors discovered the native Australian population using it to treat their own wounds. Impressed by the results, they brought it back to Britain with them, and the rest is history. But the indigenous peoples of Australia—particularly the Bundjalung—used it long before the British showed up.
For the Bundjalung, tea trees were a vital part of traditional medicine. They crushed up the leaves to create an oil that could be inhaled to treat colds, sore throats or chronic coughing, among other things. But perhaps the most impressive use came in its application for wound healing. They used the leaves to create an herbal poultice that could be placed on open wounds, bug bites, or other forms of skin irritation, often with excellent results. This is how the British would first utilize tea tree leaves after arriving in Australia—when you have an open wound and no medical know-how, the leaves you see the native population using to fight infection start to look pretty miraculous!
The first organized studies done on tea tree oil’s effects on wound healing, performed by Australian museum director and chemist Arthur Penfold, go back to around 1925. These findings suggested that tea tree oil may exhibit more than ten times the antibacterial effects of phenol, even though it was safer for application on human skin! Once Penfold’s findings reached publication, tea tree oil wormed its way into the spotlight. Over the next several decades, it slowly turned into a common at-home remedy among the Australian population—even making its way into toolkits for Australian soldiers during the second World War. There is some speculation that this is how the rest of the world was exposed to tea tree oil.
When antibiotics hit the scene, tea tree oil was tossed aside along with other natural remedies. During the 50s and 60s, the focus turned to efficacy rather than safety, and stronger, man-made chemicals for wound healing became the default. This was the low point for tea tree oil.
In the late 70s, however, a growing interest in returning to more natural lifestyles provided a brief boost in popularity. This inevitably led to larger, more commercialized tea tree oil operations, which took off over the next two decades. Today, tea tree oil straddles the line between mainstream and ‘fringe’—your doctor is not too likely to prescribe tea tree oil, but you probably have at least one neighbor who will tell you all about it.
But I’m not going to make you ask your neighbor what tea tree oil is. I’ll tell you right here, right now.
Tea tree oil comes from a leafy Australian plant known as Melaleuca alternifolia, which resembles either a very squat, ugly tree or a very tall, dignified shrub. The oil comes from the leaves; while the native Australian population crushed the leaves and used the resulting pasty substance, modern technology allows us to harvest powerful, pungent oils that are clear or pale yellow in color.
Countless studies have demonstrated the oil’s power as an antifungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-viral compound. In case you aren’t counting: that’s four ‘anti’s in one oil. If there is a minor ailment that tea tree oil can’t fix, we have not found it yet.
Ready to start using tea tree oil to solve all of life’s problems? Great! The following is a list of some of the most noteworthy health benefits of tea tree oil, which should get you started using this amazing essential oil.
Health Benefits of Tea Tree Oil
1. It fights acne just as well as benzoyl peroxide—without making your skin peel or turn tomato-red.
Tea tree oil is considered by many to be the best at-home remedy for acne, which is why it’s in so many natural skincare products. Its twin anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties make it perfect for shrinking angry red blemishes in addition to preventing future breakouts. It’s like killing two birds with one stone.
Perhaps the best part of using tea tree oil for acne is the relative lack of side effects. Tomatoes are delicious, but if your skin is the same color, it’s a problem. Unfortunately, a lot of people who use the acne products on the market today suffer from peeling or red skin as a result of the benzoyl peroxide inside of them. Tea tree oil is a much gentler alternative, which means you can get the zit-killing properties of a powerful acne cream without irritating your poor skin.
2. It is the perfect natural deodorant.
Many of us are more than a little wary of what we put on our bodies to improve body odor, and understandably so—so many perfumes and deodorants contain irritants and known carcinogens! Since its powerful antibacterial properties will kill all the bacteria that cause body odor, tea tree oil acts as a gentle, natural alternative to the deodorizing sticks you find on store shelves. Simply mix a couple drops of tea tree oil with baking soda for a cheap, easy homemade deodorant.
Sick of smelly shoes? A couple drops of tea tree oil may help neutralize the stench emanating from your favorite pair of sneakers. Your family will thank you.
3. It can solve all of your mane-related woes.
You have probably heard all about the wonders that coconut oil can do for your hair and scalp, but you may have missed out on the other ‘best thing ever’ in the quest for luscious locks: tea tree oil. Tea tree oil alleviates dandruff by calming the irritated skin on your scalp, reduces itching, and has even been used by some people to treat lice. Add tea tree oil into your favorite homemade shampoo or conditioner. It’ll take you from Medusa to magazine-worthy in a heartbeat.
4. Tea tree oil can kill fungal infections and even parasites.
While I recommend seeing your doctor if you think you have been hijacked by an ugly worm, many people have had success in treating parasites and fungal infections with tea tree oil. For toenail fungus and athlete’s foot, use a Q-tip or cotton swab to massage pure tea tree oil directly onto the affected area twice a day.
For yeast infections, mix five or six drops of tea tree oil into half a cup of water. Soak a tampon in this mixture for a few minutes, then insert it into the vagina and leave it for a couple of hours (but not more than four). This can be done twice a day. If the infection gets worse or does not let up, see a doctor.
Got ringworm? Rub tea tree oil into the affected area using a cotton swab or Q-tip.
5. It cleans out wounds and aids in wound healing.
Tea tree oil was first used as an ointment for open wounds, after all! For minor cuts and scrapes, rinse out the wound with water (or peroxide/alcohol, if needed), then gently apply a layer of tea tree oil with a Q-tip before you cover it with a bandage. The oil will prevent infection and help calm swelling around the wound, speeding up healing at the same time that it reduces your discomfort.
One study even found that tea tree oil may be effective in treating staph infections and MRSA. Researchers concluded that, “Large randomized clinical trials are now required to cement a place for [tea tree oil] as a topical medicinal agent.” Whoah!
6. Tea tree oil can soothe the symptoms of psoriasis, eczema, and sunburn.
Overall, if it’s a skincare problem, it can probably be fixed—or at least alleviated—by tea tree oil. This is due largely to its anti-inflammatory properties. Tea tree oil is often used to calm inflammation caused by psoriasis or eczema by mixing five or six drops of oil into coconut oil, but you can use whatever moisturizer/skin cream you prefer. Rub the mixture gently into the affected area as needed. Don’t like the smell? Mix a couple drops of tea tree oil into your soap (which should be formulated for sensitive skin) and apply it in the shower for a similar effect.
For sunburns, mix a few drops of tea tree oil into aloe vera and apply directly to the affected area.
There you have it: tea tree oil for every one of your problems. Before we finish, it is important to note that tea tree oil is toxic and should NOT be taken orally. In addition, some people may find that undiluted tea tree oil irritates their skin. Be sure to ‘test out’ a little bit of your oil mixtures on a small patch of skin before applying larger doses of tea tree oil to large areas.