Tea tree oil is an essential oil obtained by steam distillation of the leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia, a plant native to Australia.
Pure, undiluted tea tree oil is found in health food stores and online. Tea tree oil is also an ingredient in a number of commercial products, such as gels, lotions, creams, toothpaste, mouthwashes, and shampoos.
Tea tree oil contains a constituent called terpinen-4-ol that is thought to be responsible for most of tea tree oil’s antimicrobial activity. Because tea tree oil can kill bacteria, applying topical tea tree oil to acne lesions has been thought to kill Propionibacterium acnes, the skin-dwelling bacteria that is involved in causing acne.
In a study comparing tea tree oil gel to benzoyl peroxide, tea tree oil had fewer side effects than the benzoyl peroxide, which was associated with itching, burning, stinging, and dryness.
Although tea tree oil is a popular remedy for acne, there has only been one older study on tea tree oil and acne.
A single-blind randomized trial by the Department of Dermatology at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Australia compared the effectiveness and tolerance of 5% tea tree oil gel with 5% benzoyl peroxide lotion in 124 people with mild to moderate acne. People in both groups had a significant reduction in inflamed and non-inflammed acne lesions (open and closed comedones) over the three month period, although tea tree oil was less effective than benzoyl peroxide.
Although the tea tree oil took longer to work initially, there were fewer side effects with tea tree oil. In the benzoyl peroxide group, 79% of people had side effects including itching, stinging, burning, and dryness. Researchers noted that there were far fewer side effects in the tea tree oil group.
Double-blind, randomized controlled trials are needed before we can determine whether tea tree oil can help acne.
Undiluted tea tree oil may cause skin irritation, redness, blistering, overdrying, and itching when applied directly to the skin.
The concentration used in the only study to date was a 5% tea tree oil gel, which was applied to acne prone areas.
A 5% tea tree oil solution can be made by mixing 5 parts tea tree oil to 95 parts water (e.g. 5 mL tea tree oil and 95 mL water).
There are a number of new topical acne products that contain tea tree oil. Have a look at the skin care aisle of the health food store. The company Kiss My Face just introduced a new topical tea tree oil gel that also has other herbal antiseptics, such as witch hazel.
Another place to look would be the drug store or a cosmetics store such as Sephora. DDF has a benzoyl peroxide gel with tea tree oil.
To learn about the safety concerns of tea tree oil, please read the Tea Tree Oil Fact Sheet.
Bassett IB, Pannowitz DL, Barnetson RS. A comparative study of tea-tree oil versus benzoylperoxide in the treatment of acne. Med J Aust. (1990) 153 (8): 455-458.
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