Tea tree oil is probably something you’ve seen at the beauty counter dozens of times, in skincare creams and ointments. But what is it used for?
What’s tea tree oil?
Tea tree oil comes from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia shrub (common name tea tree, surprise surprise!). This tree is native to Eastern Australia. The oil is colourless to light yellow, and smells strongly pine-like. If eaten, it’s poisonous to both humans and animals.
In skincare, tea tree oil is useful because it’s antibacterial – pimples contain the bacteria Propionibacterium acnes (commonly abbreviated as P. acnes), and killing these reduce acne (many other acne treatments, like benzoyl peroxide and the antibiotics clindamycin and erythromycin, also directly kill acne bacteria). It also kills fungi, which means it’s handy for nail and foot infections too.
How do I use it?
If undiluted, tea tree oil can be irritating, so diluting it in another oil like mineral oil or sunflower oil is the best way to use it. A study found that 5% tea tree oil works as well as 5% benzoyl peroxide – it acts more slowly, but it’s less irritating, so 5% is a good starting point if you’re not sure.
5% tea tree oil means if you want a total of X mL tea tree oil mixture, to get the mL of:
Tea tree oil: multiply the total X by 0.05
Diluting oil: multiply the total X by 0.95
Then mix the two together in a clean bottle to get your mixture!
For example, if you want 20 mL total, you need:
0.05 x 20 = 1 mL tea tree oil
0.95 x 20 = 19 mL diluting oil
Alternatively, you can wing it and dilute it as you use it, such as by putting a few drops of tea tree oil onto a cotton ball, then adding a healthy splash of another oil before dabbing it on.
Where can I buy it?
You can buy tea tree oil from lots of places, like essential oil suppliers (such as New Directions), health food stores, pharmacies, online (Amazon stocks Thursday Plantation) or iHerb. If you don’t want to end up with a massive bottle of tea tree oil sitting around that you don’t get around to using, or if you don’t like using skincare oils, you can also buy diluted tea tree oil and tea tree oils such as The Body Shop’s Tea Tree Oil (15% tea tree oil), which I’ve been using recently. I’ve found it very good for calming down swollen and inflamed pimples, and much less drying than benzoyl peroxide.
J Linder, Role of Oils in the Topical Treatment of Acne. Cosmetic Dermatology 2008, 21, 211.
IB Bassett, DL Pannowitz, RS Barnetson, A comparative study of tea-tree oil versus benzoylperoxide in the treatment of acne. Med J Aust 1990, 153, 455.
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