Studies Bolster Support for Tea Tree Oil

For thousands of years, indigenous Australians have used the leaves of the paper bark tree for its medicinal properties. Stories have long been told of healing lakes used by the Aborigines, now known to be bodies of water in which leaves of the paper bark tree had fallen. Today, consumers have this ancient remedy readily available to them in the form of tea tree oil (TTO), the increasingly popular essential oil derived from Malaleuca alternifolia. TTO is infused into a variety of personal care products such as shampoos, soaps, moisturizers and antiseptic salves. As new studies surface from the scientific community, TTO stands poised to emerge as a natural alternative to a variety of chemical-based skin and beauty care products.

How It Works
Various properties found in TTO make this essential oil applicable for a multitude of uses. Among essential oils, TTO is significant because it has demonstrated a broad range of biologic activities. Terpinen-4-ol is the main active component of TTO and has shown convincing antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Most antimicrobial agents work by inhibiting the synthesis of macromolecules such as protein or DNA or by affecting the cell wall. The in vitro data from various studies suggest that TTO products may have efficacy in the treatment of many cutaneous skin infections, but in vivo studies are still needed from randomized controlled clinical trials (1).

Flair for Hair
Choosing between all the hair care products available can leave consumers scratching their heads. Shoppers may be interested to learn that TTO is an established hair care ingredient that also soothes the scalp. Dandruff is a condition associated with the yeast Pityrosporum ovale. Symptoms include dry, itchy scalp and unsightly flaking. Since TTO is known to possess anti-fungal qualities, a study was conducted by the Department of Dermatology at RPA Hospital in NSW, Australia to investigate its benefits for dandruff care. It was found that a 5% TTO shampoo resulted in a 41% improvement in symptoms with no serious side effects (2). In addition, the antiseptic properties in TTO may help regulate naturally occurring microbes in the scalp, which can cause irritation. TTO also possesses an appealing natural scent that is complimentary to beauty care products.

Clear Skin
Many over-the-counter acne medications can leave the user with hypersensitive skin. If your clients seek clearer skin with less irritation, consider pointing them toward skincare products containing TTO. Acne is a condition caused by a chronic inflammation of the sebaceous glands. Once associated with the onset of puberty, acne often continues to plague sufferers into their thirties. In a randomized trial at Prince Albert Hospital in Australia, a 5% benzoyl peroxide lotion was compared with the effectiveness of a 5% TTO gel. Both groups had significant reduction5 in acne lesions (comedones), but the TTO group suffered far less side effects such as burning, itching, stinging and dryness (3). It should be noted that consumers are wise to avoid applying undiluted TTO, which may cause a slight allergic reaction. TTO eliminates the bacteria that can cause breakouts, and therefore has potential as a protective measure against acne. TTO can be marketed toward the teen demographic as an acne remedy that is less likely to cause the unsightly redness often associated with harsher chemical treatments.

Toe the Line
TTO has been shown to combat a variety of fungal infections, including Athlete’s Foot and toenail fungus. A randomized, controlled trial published in the Journal of Family Practice looked at the twice-daily application of 100% TTO or 1% clotrimazole solution (a topical antifungal medication) in 177 people with toenail fungal infection. After six months, TTO was found to be equally effective as the topical antifungal, based on clinical assessment (4). TTO also will keep cracked skin moist and promote faster healing. This essential oil can be promoted to consumers that frequent health clubs, public swimming pools and locker rooms, as these places can be breeding grounds for fungal infection. Alternatives to standard topical antibiotics are of increasing importance in an age of resistant strains of fungus and bacteria (5). Although there are numerous topical applications for TTO, it should never be swallowed, as ingestion has been shown to cause extremely adverse reactions.
With such a broad spectrum of antimicrobial, antifungal and antiseptic properties, this versatile oil nicely complements consumers’ arsenals of natural remedies. WF

1. C. Carson and T. Riley, Antimicrobial Activity of Tea Tree Oil (Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Kingston, Australia,1998).
2. A. Satchell, “Treatment of Dandruff With 5% TTO Shampoo” J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 47 (6), 852–855.
3. I. Bassett, “A Comparitive Study Of TTO Versus Benzoylperoxide In The Treatment Of Acne,” Med. J. Aust.  153 (8), 455–458 (1990).
4. D.S. Buck, D.M. Nidorf and J.G. Addino, “Comparison of Two Topical Preparations for the Treatment of Onychomycosis: Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) Oil and Clotrimazole,” J. Fam. Pract. 38 (6), 601–605 (1994).
5. R. Klatz, R. Goldman The Official Anti-Aging Revolution (Basic Health Publications Inc, Laguna Beach, CA, 2007).

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2008