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.
Wonder from Down Under
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.
Tea tree oil has been used to treat mouth ulcers and abscesses, conjunctivitis, acne, boils, impetigo, psoriasis, dandruff, vaginitis, thrush, septic wounds, cuts and abrasions, carbuncles, pus-filled infections, and ringworm. It is also said to ease the pain of burns and hemorrhoids and help rid the hair and body of lice and ticks.
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.
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."