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Tea Tree Oil Treats Skin Problems

Best known as an alternative acne remedy, this versatile potion has fans among doctors and consumers alike.

All Clear

California aesthetician Brenda Harper says she believes that tea tree oil should be in every medicine cabinet. She uses it regularly with clients who suffer from acne, with "wonderful results," she says.

"Used in conjunction with glycolic acid, which is an exfoliant, tea tree oil helps destroy the bacteria that can cause acne flare-ups," she explains.

Harper says that a severe case of acne will respond to daily treatments within 6 months. She recommends dabbing tea tree oil on the affected areas, waiting 15 minutes, and then applying glycolic acid. Make sure the skin is perfectly clean before beginning, she adds.

Tea tree oil can also be used preventively, Harper says. "If you're acne-prone, apply it regularly to keep breakouts from occurring." For occasional flare-ups, an application of tea tree oil should show results within a day.

"Just make sure that you don't pick at your skin," Harper warns. "Too often, people can't keep their hands off their face and they wind up making the situation worse, or causing scarring or hyperpigmentation, which will then call for peels to even out the skin tone."

The Other Side

While tea tree oil is safe, as long as not used internally, it is not the universally recommended method for the treatment of acne. "I think there's a paucity of literature about tea tree oil," says board-certified South Carolina dermatologist Jon Morgan, MD, who prefers to treat acne patients with other remedies.

Acne is a disease that begins in the teen years, says Morgan, and more than half his patients continue to suffer from the condition well into their 30s and beyond. Though he recognizes the benefits of tea tree oil for some acne conditions, Morgan prefers to give his patients topical retinoids such as Retin-A. If there is no significant improvement after 10-12 weeks, he prescribes Accutane, an oral form of Retin-A, which Morgan considers an acne cure.

"Accutane has a profound effect on acne," he says, "although we're unclear why people stay in remission following its use." Morgan's prescribed Accutane regimen consists of 40-80 milligrams daily for approximately five months. "The higher the dosage, the better the remission," he says. Accutane is also the only effective treatment for back acne, Morgan adds, in addition to "melting away" precancerous lesions.

Morgan adds that for women whose acne returns after treatment with Accutane, a visit to an endocrinologist might be in order to rule out a condition known as polycystic ovary syndrome, in which too much male hormone is produced. Acne is one of the symptoms of this syndrome, Morgan says.

Still, Morgan says he is not suggesting that tea tree oil is a "quack" remedy. "There is a lot to be learned in natural medicine. I think there needs to be more research on tea tree oil. It could wind up being an interesting addition to our acne-fighting tools."

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Reviewed on October 19, 2007

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