Tea Tree

Common names: Manuka, melaleuca, tea tree oil

The tea tree grows in Australia and Asia. This tall evergreen tree has a white, spongy bark. The oil from the leaves is used.

Australian Aboriginals used the leaves to treat cuts and skin infections. They would crush the leaves and apply them to the affected area. Captain James Cook and his crew named the tree “tea tree,” using its leaves as a substitute for tea as well as to flavor beer. Australian soldiers participating in World War I were given tea tree oil as a disinfectant, leading to a high demand for its production.

Active constituents of tea tree

The oil contains numerous chemicals known as terpenoids. Australian standards were established for the amount of one particular compound, terpinen-4-ol, which must make up at least 30% and preferably 40–50% of the oil for it to be medically useful. Another compound, cineole, should make up less than 15% and preferably 2.5% of the oil. The oil kills fungus and bacteria, including those resistant to some antibiotics. A single blind study has shown topical application of 5% tea tree oil in people with acne is as helpful as benzoylperoxide and has fewer side effects.

A double blind study found 100% tea tree oil applied topically was as effective as the antifungal medicine clotrimazole for people with athlete’s foot fungus affecting the toe nails. Another double blind study found that 10% tea tree oil cream was as effective as antifungal medicine at improving symptoms associated with foot fungus, though it was not more effective than placebo for eliminating foot fungus.

A single blind study found that rinsing the mouth with 15 ml (1 U.S. tablespoon) tea tree oil solution four times daily effectively treated oral yeast (thrush) in AIDS patients. Solutions containing no more than 5% should be used orally and should never be swallowed.

How much tea tree is usually taken?

Oil at a strength of 70–100% should be applied moderately at least twice per day to the affected areas of skin or nail. For topical treatment of acne, the oil is used at a dilution of 5–15%. Concentrations as strong as 40% may be used—with extreme caution and qualified advice—as vaginal douches. Oil diluted to 5% or less is used at a dose of 1 tablespoon four times daily for treatment of thrush in immune-compromised adults. Burning may occur when rinsing with tea tree oil. The solution is never swallowed after use.

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