Tea tree oil is an essential oil that has antiseptic properties. It has been used as a natural antifungal and antibacterial agent. You might have heard that teat tree oil can help treat acne because it kills acne-causing bacteria. However, unlike benzoyl peroxide and retin A, there is not much evidence that tea tree oil is an effective treatment for acne.
There are only two published studies on the use of tea tree oil for acne. The first was done about 10 years ago in Australia. It showed that 5% tea tree oil is comparable to 5% benzoyl peroxide. The tea tree oil took longer to work, but appeared to be less irritating than the benzoyl peroxide. The second study, which was done in Iran, showed that 5% tea tree oil was more effective than a placebo in treating acne. Comparing tea tree oil to a placebo, which is essentially comparing it to non-treatment, is not the same thing as comparing it to another acne-fighting treatment. It’s likely that tea tree oil has some effect on acne but it has never been shown to be better than traditional acne therapies.
In contrast to other acne treatments, however, tea tree oil is an increasingly common cause of skin allergies. Like other fragrant oils such as balsam of Peru, tea tree oil can trigger an allergic contact dermatitis in people who are sensitive. This can range from a minor itchy rash to a full scale blistering eruption.
Tea tree oil is also toxic if swallowed. If consumed, even in small doses, it can cause reduced immune function, abdominal pain, diarrhea, drowsiness, confusion, or even, in rare instance, coma. If applied in the ears, it can lead to hearing loss. It has been shown to be toxic to animals when applied to a large area of skin. Tea tree oil can affect hormones as well. One study published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that repeated application of topical products containing tea tree oil (and lavender oil) could cause prepubertal gynecomastia, a rare condition resulting in enlarged breast tissue in prepubscent boys. Tea tree oil is not recommended for pregnant or nursing mothers.
Because tea tree oil is a naturally occurring substance, it tends to get good publicity, but it’s probably only an average or below average product for acne. Oftentimes people believe that since tea tree oil is natural, it must be safe and better for you than traditonal acne treatements. It’s not true. Remember, turpentine (a related tree oil that is used to strip paint) is also natural, but it doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
Photo: Shek Graham