Beth Seigenthaler stumbled across a promotional display for tea tree oil in her local health food store while she was suffering from a particularly bad episode of fever blisters. Having had the condition since childhood, she figured she might as well try the product, which claimed to help a variety of skin conditions. She found that the pain of the blisters disappeared immediately, and she healed more quickly than she ever had before.
"I've used it on other skin conditions, including a plantar wart and sunburn," says Seigenthaler, who lives in Nashville. "I have bottles of it at my office, at home, and in the car. I take it on every vacation. I'm a walking commercial for the product."
There is some scientific evidence to support Seigenthaler's good experience. A 1990 study published in the Medical Journal of Australia reported that a solution of 5% tea tree oil treated acne just as well as 5% benzoyl peroxide.
Tea tree oil comes from the Australian paperbark tree and has been used traditionally as a folk remedy by Australian aborigines. There are close to 300 varieties of Melaleuca alternifolia (the Latin name for the tea tree), but only one produces the medicinal oil. Tea tree oil became popular in the 1920s after Australian servicemen reported its therapeutic uses. In 1922, the Royal Society of New South Wales reported that the oil was a particularly effective antiseptic.
According to naturopathic and homeopathic doctor Asa Hershoff, DC, of Los Angeles and San Francisco, tea tree oil has antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties and stimulates the immune system.
"It's a reliable antiseptic," says Hershoff, author of Homeopathic Remedies: A Quick and Easy Guide to Common Disorders and Their Homeopathic Treatments. "There just aren't that many substances that have all the therapeutic applications that tea tree oil does." And though tea tree oil is slower to show benefits than benzoyl peroxide, says Hershoff, it results in less itching, scaling, and irritation.