The Microbe Fighter

Tea tree oil, Australia’s best-known natural remedy,
is a skincare multi-tasker—and more.


July/August 2011

By Karen Tenelli

In the Australian state of New South Wales, on the country’s southeastern coast, there is a lake the color of tea. Lake Ainsworth is a popular recreational spot, but that’s only part of its story. The lake had long been revered by the Bundjalung aborigines for its healing powers. It was place where women went to cleanse themselves after giving birth. Anyone with sores, wounds or skin afflictions would bathe to find relief. Modern Australians still go to Lake Ainsworth for rejuvenation, their skin and hair softer and smoother when they emerge from its brown waters.

The lake takes its color from the surrounding trees, which are in the Melaleuca family—better known as the tea tree. Today the tea tree is grown on carefully cultivated plantations, its leaves distilled into an oil valued worldwide for its antimicrobial properties.

A New “Tea”

Australia’s swampy pre-colonial coastland was a rugged place to live; cuts and scrapes were common. The aborigines found that tea tree leaves, crushed and bound to wounds, could clean out even injuries that had become infected. Inhaling the steamed leaves helped ease colds and coughs; steeping them in water yielded a brew that soothed rashes and sore throats.

The first Europeans to discover the tea tree were British explorer James Cook and his crew in the HMS Endeavor, which reached the Australian coast in 1770. It was Cook who gave the tree its common name after seeing the aborigines brew its leaves into a tea-like liquid. (M. alternifolia is not related to Camilla sinensis, the plant from which standard tea is taken.) Colonists in the area started using tea tree to replace medicines that were difficult to obtain from faraway Britain.

In the 1920s A.R. Penfold, chemist and curator of the Government Museum of Technology and Applied Sciences in Sydney, began evaluating the essential oils found in various Australian plants. He found tea tree oil to have 12 times the antimicrobial power of standard antiseptic preparations. As a result, tea tree became a common household remedy throughout Australia.

When World War II broke out, tea tree oil was supplied to every Australian soldier as an antiseptic, fungus fighter and insect deterrent. In fact, it was considered so vital to the war effort that oil producers were exempt from military service. However, the development of penicillin and other synthetic antibiotics pushed tea tree into the background and oil production collapsed during the 1950s and 60s.

Tea Tree Rediscovered

Tea tree oil made a comeback during the 1970s. It began when Eric White, a movie cameraman who had became fascinated by the idea of a natural antiseptic, planted a stand of tea trees in northern New South Wales. After several years of hard work in the Australian bush, White’s health failed—but not before he was able to produce oil from his trees.

In 1978 White’s stepson, Chris Dean, developed a severe toenail infection while trekking through Africa. After five months of consulting with conventional doctors and folk medicine practitioners, Dean, who had gone to England, was told that the only cure would be to have the nail surgically removed.

At that point Dean’s brother Michael arrived in London on a business trip, bringing tea tree oil with him. Dean applied it to his foot and found that the itching and pain lessened within 10 minutes; within four hours, the swelling and redness had largely subsided. Dean, realizing the value of his stepfather’s project, moved back to Australia to take up White’s work. Today tea tree oil is distilled under controlled conditions from plants grown on large plantations.

Outer Defenses

Tea tree’s ancient role in easing skin problems of all sorts remains its most widespread usage. “Tea tree oil is used for many dermatologic conditions, including athlete’s foot, eczema, lice, psoriasis and as an antiseptic,” says Jeanette Jacknin, MD, board-certified dermatologist and author of Smart Medicine for Your Skin (Penguin Putnam). “Applying it topically to acne lesions has been found to kill Propionibacterium acnes, the bacteria involved in causing acne.”

Tea tree is effective against Staphylococcus aureus, the bacterium responsible for boils. What’s more, the faith of Australia’s original residents in the ability of tea tree oil to clear skin infections is now backed by scientific studies in which the oil has proved capable of dispersing infectious material and debris trapped within wounds.

Tea tree is once again finding a place in first-aid kits. “It is a multi-purpose remedy to apply to cuts, mosquito bites, rashes, stings and burns, including sunburn. Antifungal and antiviral, tea tree is one of the best non-irritating antiseptic essential oils,” says herbalist Brigitte Mars, AHG, author of Beauty by Nature (Healthy Living Publications). She says it can also be dabbed onto the skin as an insect deterrent.

In cream or ointment form, tea tree can be massaged into aching muscles or rubbed onto areas affected by sprains, arthritis, bursitis and other painful conditions. Tea tree is available as cotton swabs preloaded with oil and soothing aloe vera, and is also used in natural soaps, skin washes and deodorants.

Fungi and yeasts are responsible for many external miseries: infected nails (the kind that plagued Dean); athlete’s foot, ringworm, jock itch and vaginal infections. Tea tree has been found effective against all of these conditions in the form of full-strength oil for external applications and suppositories for vaginal use.

The scalp and hair also benefit from tea tree oil, which can “help dandruff and even prevent head lice,” according to Mars. In one study, a tea tree-based product eliminated nearly all head lice in one day (BMC Dermatology 8/10). Tea tree helps clear the scalp of dead cells and encourages the normal flow of sebum, which keeps hair properly moisturized. As a result, shampoos and conditioners that contain tea tree oil may reduce itching and flaking while helping to correct either dryness or oiliness.

As news of tea tree’s antiseptic powers became known in the 1920s dentists in Australia started using it to treat the bleeding, inflamed gums associated with gingivitis, a usage supported by research at the University of Adelaide Dental School (Australian Dental Journal 6/04). Tea tree toothpastes and mouthwashes help maintain oral health by reducing the number of bacteria associated with gingivitis and cavities; oil-infused toothpicks make tea tree’s dental protection more portable. In addition, tea tree lozenges can help ease minor throat irritation and coughs. (The oil itself should not be taken internally.)

Nearly 90 years after Penfold’s original studies, researchers around the world not only continue to substantiate tea tree’s known healing powers but to also discover new ones. For example, in studies tea tree has been found to help ease warts, inflamed eyelids and an itchy skin infection called scabies.

Breaking New Ground

It is the ability of tea tree oil to battle the most dangerous of microbes that has particularly intrigued scientists. One of the biggest dangers posed by the overuse of modern antibiotics is resistance, in which bacteria become immune to such drugs. The best-known example of antibiotic resistance is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a potentially fatal skin infection that can cause widespread tissue destruction.

Synthetic antibiotics are susceptible to resistance because they are highly specific in the way they attack a micro-organism; once the microbe learns how to thwart the drug, it can pass that knowledge onto its offspring and the antibiotic becomes much less effective.

On the other hand, as a natural substance, there’s no one way tea tree works to disrupt a microbe. As a result it is difficult for bacteria to outwit tea tree, which researchers are studying as an agent to help stop the spread of MRSA in hospitals (Journal of Craniomaxillofacial Surgery 10/09).

Another relatively new avenue of tea tree research is its use against cancers of the skin and underlying tissues, a major health concern in sun-soaked Australia and in the US. In one study, tea tree oil was able to help reduce the growth of aggressive, chemo-resistant tumors in mice (Cancer Chemotherapy and Pharmacology 11/10). Tea tree oil may also help fight melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer (Planta Medica 1/17/10 online).

Researchers have discovered dozens of chemical components in tea tree oil, the most strongly antibacterial of which is terpinen-4-ol. High-quality oil is standardized to provide more than 35% terpinen-4-ol. To preserve its strength, store tea tree oil in a dry place away from light and temperature extremes. As with all essential oils, you should test tea tree oil by applying it to a small patch of skin first.

From disinfecting the wounds of an ancient people to fighting the latest battles in humanity’s ongoing war on microbes, tea tree has promoted healing and wholeness for centuries.

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