Tea Tree Oil
You see it in more and more cosmetic products: tea tree oil. It sounds lovely and green and natural, but is tea tree oil really such a fine ingredient? Today some information about this essential oil… Tea tree oil is mentioned in my list of “ingredients which you should not have in your products”. Having said that, I, myself, do have it in my bathroom cabinet. For those of you who think I have lost my marbles, more about this oil and how you can use it safely.
In spite of the name, “tea tree” has nothing to do with tea. Tea tree oil comes from the Melaleuca alternifolia: a tree found in Australia. A golden- yellow oil is extracted from the needles of the tree. This oil contains terpinen-4-ol, alpha-terpineol and alpha pinene; these ingredients are known for their anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and even parasite destroying effect (also then, the demodex mite which causes Rosacea problems). Furthermore, tea tree oil has an anti-inflammatory effect. Due to less histamine being released the appearance of redness and swelling will be reduced. It is not for nothing that it is often used in products to combat acne, for example. In a study whereby 5% tea tree oil was compared with Benzoyl Peroxide, the Benzoyl Peroxide was more effective, but the oil gave less side effects. In another double blind study 60 people were split into two groups: Tea tree oil worked significantly better against acne than the placebo product. So there really is enough proof that this oil is effective. So far, the positive side of the story.
Unfortunately tea tree oil use also has a number of negative aspects. High concentrations of the oil has a toxic effect, this was shown in studies carried out on animals. You must also make sure that you do not drink it; a number of cases of poisoning have been reported in America. These were mainly children who, for one reason or another, had swallowed a number of ml of essential oil containing 100% tea tree oil. It is for this reason that most bottles containing 100% tea tree oil have a child proof cap. Furthermore, the oil often causes allergic reactions or skin irritation. In a study, whereby 5% tea tree oil was applied to the skin, as many as 20% of the people tested reported skin irritation! The degree of irritation, however, is highly dependent on the concentration used and the container in which it is packed. Certain ingredients in tea tree oil are very instable, meaning that they react almost instantly to oxygen and light, causing the formation of irritating ingredients. If you are using a product containing tea tree oil then check the packaging date, the container used and the concentration added. I always buy mine from the Health Food shop, it is made by Chi. This is 100% tea tree oil and also comes in a brown glass bottle. It so happens that this oil and plastic do not go very well together and it would quickly oxidise in a see through bottle. I dilute the oil in jojoba oil just before applying it. After opening the bottle I keep it in the fridge and throw it away after a couple of months. If unopened a bottle of tea tree oil has a shelf life of around 2 years which I keep an eye on. I only use the oil on a specific area, for example, to disinfect small wounds, inflamed areas (e.g. Rosacea) and pimples. If you don’t suffer from any of these then I wouldn’t even use it.
Since it is best to apply tea tree oil to the affected skin only, the concentration of tea tree oil in ready-made products is low and the probability of oxidation is high, you are better off leaving the ready-made products and instead using the freshly mixed kind. You should also be aware that tea tree oil has a very strong smell. According to my children it smells like shoe polish, but I smell eucalyptus instead. It may be more pleasant for your work colleagues if you apply it in the evenings!
(Dr. Jetske Ultee-Research Physician Cosmetic Dermatology)
P.S. I am going to be conducting a study soon into the effects of Terpinen-4-Oil (taken from tea tree oil) in people suffering from acne-Rosacea. If you are interested in taking part, then send an e-mail to [email protected]