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Tea tree oil - just a fad?

Aug. 1, 2006
What is the big deal about tea tree oil? It’s in everything! Why is this essential oil so prevalent in health care?

What is the big deal about tea tree oil? It’s in everything! Why is this essential oil so prevalent in health care?

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I am sitting here in Savannah, Ga., writing this column among the live oak trees with Spanish moss dripping down like hot caramel on a sundae. My new dear friends in Savannah - Deb, Penny, Kim, Laura, Clyde, Linda, Janine, and last but not least, Scott - have inspired me with the direction of asepsis for this column. You all have taught this 31-year veteran of dental hygiene new ways for barriers and protection. I chose to inhale some of my own essential oils for inspiration, clarity, and creativity, along with memory-boosting to continue this column into the late-night hours. Peppermint, basil, clove, ginger, cinnamon, and black pepper are a few that I blended to help stimulate my brain after a long day’s work. My message to you is thanks for the memories; you are the best.

The first essential oil that comes to mind is tea tree oil. Tea tree oil, also known as Melaleuca alternifolia, was used as a general antiseptic by the Aborigine tribes for thousands of years. The Aborigines were known to chew on the leaves. Tea tree oil was used as a medicinal agent for cuts, burns, bites, and many skin ailments. Famous British explorer Captain Cook is considered the man responsible for coining the name “tea tree.” In 1770, when he and his men landed at Botany Bay, he witnessed the Aborigines brewing tea from its leaves. Cook learned to brew the leaves of the tree for his men to drink to prevent scurvy. As early as 1923, clinical trials in Australia began to provide scientific evidence for the tea tree’s antiseptic and bactericidal properties. Its importance made it standard issue for soldiers in the Australian Army during World War II.

Today, tea tree is the subject of a great deal of international research.

What is tea tree oil?

Australian tea trees, the main source of tea tree oil, are not trees at all. Rather, they are green shrubs that grow in the wet coastal regions of Australia. These shrubs grow very quickly and can reach heights of seven to 20 feet when mature. Australian tea trees have soft, thick, white bark and white flowers that bloom in the summer.

The tree’s leaves are collected twice a year and passed through a distillation process to expel the oil. The oil has a nutmeg-like smell to some, but many of my patients believe it to smell “medicine-y.”

The light yellow pine-needle-like tea tree oil is used mainly in medicine for surgery, burn care, and dental care. Melaleuca is also used for industrial lubricants and cosmetic products. Other oils that are produced are the harsher, less expensive cajeput (Melaleuca Cajuputi) and the sweeter niaouli (Melaleuca viridiflora), which those of us who are aromatherapists consider more effective on viral infections such as herpes blisters.

In 1920, Dr. A. Penfold tested the oil’s properties for the first time. He discovered that Melaleuca oil was 12 times more potent than the accepted antiseptic at the time, carbolic acid, and yet it is nonpoisonous to humans. Note: Use of tea tree oil to control fleas has resulted in the death of kittens.

The impressive antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties make tea tree oil useful for a wide range of conditions. It is used in the treatment of candida and all sorts of infections, ringworm, sunburn, acne, athlete’s foot, toothaches, and gum disease.

Tea tree oil seems to be used these days in almost every “natural” dental product. Tea tree oil is used in toothpaste, dental floss, dental picks, and mouthwash. Like many phenomena, they can be overmarketed and abused without more knowledge and education.

Is tea tree oil safe?

Experts consider tea tree oil to be safe as a topical treatment, and you can apply it directly to the skin on a daily basis. When applied to the skin in its pure (100 percent oil) form, tea tree oil seldom causes irritation. You still need to be careful depending on the individual and his/her sensitivity to topically applied products.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate tea tree oil in the same way it regulates medication. It can be sold with limited or no research based on how well it works.

Tea tree oil contains chemicals known as terpenoids, which are believed to give the oil its medicinal properties. Australian standards were established for the amount of one particular compound, terpinen-4-ol, which must make up at least 30 percent and preferably 40 to 60 percent of the oil for it to be considered medically useful. Tea tree oil contains yet another compound, cineole, which should make up less than 10 percent and preferably 2.5 percent of the oil to ensure skin safety during usage.

Terpinen is the ingredient responsible for the healing properties. Cineole contributes the disinfectant properties. In large amounts, cineole is caustic to human tissue. Knowing that tea tree oil kills fungus and bacteria, it may also cause resistance to some antibiotics.

Various essential oils were tested against oral pathogens. It was found that tea tree oil showed significant adhesion-inhibiting activity against P. gingivalis and was one of the oils to show strong antibacterial activity against periodontopathic and cariogenic bacteria. It was also found to be safe on cells that line the mouth.

In patients who suffer from oral candidiasis, tea tree oil mouthrinse may prove effective in reducing symptoms. Other studies indicate that tea tree oil is also effective when used in connection with nose, throat, and vaginal-related infections.

Tea tree oil: dosage and administration

Tea tree can be applied directly to the skin or taken orally, but not swallowed. The amount of actual tea tree oil in various marketed preparations can range anywhere from 1 to 100 percent. Often, the stronger products are used for hard-to-treat infections such as toenail fungus, while 5 to 10 percent tea tree oil gels have been used successfully to treat acne.

A commonly used dosage and duration for oral candidiasis is to use one tablespoonful of 5 percent tea tree oil solution as a mouthwash up to four times a day. (Make sure your patients expectorate.)

When using soft-tissue management and after a full-mouth debridement, I will add two drops of tea tree oil and distilled water to my Dual Select bottle (DENTSPLY) and irrigate using the entire bottle. Another great option is the Professional Oral Irrigator by Viajet. I love this because it warms the liquid while administering subgingivally. It is the only product I have found that truly delivers perfect-temperature, warm liquid for my patients. Again, use two drops of tea tree oil to one full tank in the oral irrigator.

Dr. Penfold’s research prompted further testing in the following decades, contributing to its increasing use by the public. Australian physicians were astounded by the oil’s ease in sterilizing wounds and preventing infections resulting from surgery. In the late 1940s, the introduction of antibiotics, such as penicillin, caused a drop in the use of tea tree oil.

However, in 1980, growth in immunity to antibiotics and improved tea tree harvesting procedures created a new demand for this amazing substance.

The Tea Tree Group from Australia has been responsible for many of the positive studies on tea tree oil. In one study, Dr. Kate Hammer found that a range of oral bacteria, which is responsible for tooth decay, is susceptible to tea tree oil even at a low dilution.

When compared to standard antibiotics and antiseptics, Melaleuca oil displays unique characteristics. In contrast to iodine and hydrogen peroxide, two commonly accepted antiseptics, tea tree oil does not harm human tissue. It also kills germs upon application and prevents their growth for days afterward.

As an alternative to traditional antibiotics, tea tree oil’s complex chemical composition makes it extremely difficult for germs to develop resistance to it. Traditional antibiotics possess more simple chemical structures to which germs can easily develop immunity.

Recent research at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, Australia, indicates that tea tree oil eliminates the onset of infections in first- and second-degree burns, while rapidly healing skin tissue and preventing scarring.

Tea tree oil is also effective as an additional treatment for colds, bronchitis, whooping cough, and pneumonia. Adding it to a vaporizer and inhaling the fumes helps kill germs that infect the sinuses and lungs. Similar to eucalyptus oil, tea tree oil also opens clogged respiratory passages. When using Perioromatherapy on my patients, my sinuses will run like crazy, by the time I am finished with my patient, it works better than any decongestant I could possibly take.

Household cleaning solutions based on the oil provide a healthy alternative to products containing harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde (suspected of causing cancer and birth defects), ammonia, and phenol (which irritate the respiratory tract).

Tea tree oil is an excellent insect repellent and can be used to repel ticks and soothe sunburns by reducing inflammation. Applying the oil to insect bites reduces swelling and disinfects the area.

It can also be used to reduce the spread of infection in hospitals and dental offices. Besides sterilizing hygiene or surgical instruments, washing with soap containing tea tree oil reduces the chances of cross-contamination. Soaps made from the oil are 60 times stronger in killing bacteria compared to other disinfectant soaps. Applying the oil to the operative site prior to surgery also speeds the healing process. In Australia, dental patients are often instructed to apply tea tree oil to their gums a few days before dental work occurs to prevent postoperative infections.

Sports medicine physicians, chiropractors, and massage therapists can capitalize on the healing properties of this useful oil in the treatment of sports- and work-related injuries as well as sore muscles. Applied to physical injuries, it sanitizes the area, reduces the level of swelling, and acts as an anesthetic. Its deep penetrating action soothes sore muscles and loosens them up, making this oil an essential tool in massage therapy and Perioromatherapy. (See course information below.)

Purchasing tea tree oil

Be careful when buying tea tree oil - it is available commercially in a range of grades. It is worthwhile to use the best quality oil you can find. Very often, you get what you pay for. Make sure to find out what kind of tea tree oil you are getting.

Remember to look at the cineole and Terpinen-4-ol numbers. For cineole, the lower the number the better. Tree oils with high cineole content are thought to be of poor quality and more likely to cause skin irritation. For Terpinen-4-ol, the higher the number the better. Terpinen-4-ol appears responsible for most of the antimicrobial activity of tea tree oil.

I leave you with an aromatherapy treatment for your tired feet after a long, hot summer. I call it Soothing Piggie Soak: 2 quarts of warm-hot water, 5 drops of tea tree oil, 5 drops of sage oil, 2 drops of peppermint oil. Relax and leave your feet in the tub for 15 minutes. Make sure you have a container that fits both feet, and a spouse to dry them off isn’t bad either!


• Arweiler NB, Donos N, Netuschil L, Reich E, Sculean A. Clinical and antibacterial effects of tea tree oil - a pilot study.

• Soukoulis S, Hirsch R. The effects of a tea tree oil-containing gel on plaque and chronic gingivitis. Dental School, The University of Adelaide, South Australia.

• Soukoulis S, Hirsch R. The effects of a tea tree oil-containing gel on plaque and chronic gingivitis. Aust Dent J June 2004; 49(2):78-83.

• Hammer KA, Dry L, Johnson M, Michalak EM, Carson CF, Riley TV. Susceptibility of oral bacteria to Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil in vitro. Oral Microbiol Immunol. 2003 Dec; 18(6):389-92.

• Takarada K, Kimizuka R, Takahashi N, Honma K, Okuda K, Kato T. A comparison of the antibacterial efficacies of essential oils against oral pathogens. Oral Microbiology and Immunology February 2004; 19(1):61-64(4).

• Tea tree oil - toxic to cats. Copyright 1995, 2003 Sarah Hartwell.