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Tea Tree Oil

by Cynthia Olsen(more info)

listed in aromatherapy, originally published in issue 36 - January 1999


In today's societies, natural medicine is becoming more mainstream. The baby boomers now make up a large portion of consumers in the natural products industry. Sales of herbs in the United States market alone in the natural health food stores and chain stores rose over 20% between 1994 and 1996, and continue to rise in popularity, while other countries in the world are following suit. In a poll conducted by Prevention Magazine and reported by NBC News, one-third of Americans use herbal medicines and spend an average of 54 US dollars on herbal products, adding up to 3.4 billion dollars worth of sales. People take herbs for several reasons. Individuals prefer taking natural medicines than pharmaceutical drugs and OTC drugs for self treatable health problems.


Tea trees in the natural stands

Tea trees in the natural stands

Leaf Material

Leaf Material

Secondly, the herbs are consumed to maintain wellness and increase strength and elevate immune system functions. Thirdly, herbs are taken to prevent degenerative diseases. The scientific studies and implementation of these herbs is timely due to the fact that airborne viruses and immune deficiency disorders are becoming more commonplace in our societies and many allopathic medicines do not seem to have the capacity to control, let alone cure, these chronic illnesses.

Melaleuca alternifolia, (tea tree oil) has become increasingly more known and used as a first aid remedy for a number of skin ailments. The scientific research in Australia and in the U.S. have confirmed the efficacy in treating bacterial and fungal skin infections and also verifying minimal adverse reactions.

To quote Dr Paul Belaiche, Chief of Phytotherapy Department at the University of Paris, France, "The essential oil of Melaleuca has entered the team of major essential oils and emerges as an antiseptic and antifungal weapon of the first order in phyto-aromatherapy."

The Discovery of Tea Tree Oil

In 1770, Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy disembarked from the H.M.S. Endeavor at Botany Bay, Australia – near the eventual site of Sydney. From there, he travelled north through the coastal regions of New South Wales, where he came upon groves of trees thick with sticky, aromatic leaves that, when boiled, rendered a spicy tea. The early explorers could not have known that 150 years later, Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) as it was called by Captain Cook, would be used as a medicinal agent for cuts, burns, bites, and a host of skin ailments.

In 1923, Dr. A.R. Penfold, curator and chemist at the Government Museum of Technology and Applied Sciences in Sydney, Australia, conducted a study of the leaves of the tea tree. Dr. Penfold discovered their essential oils to be thirteen times stronger as an antiseptic bactericide than carbolic acid, considered the universal standard in the early 1900's. Dr Penfold noted;" Melaleuca alternifolia is quite common, and exists in very large areas in the North Coast district of New South Wales. IT yields 1.8% of an oil of pale lemon tint, with a pleasant terpenic myristic odour. This is prepared on a commercial scale, and is particularly recommended as a non-poisonous, non irritant antiseptic of unusual strength, the Rideal-Walker coefficient being 11.

The oil contains 50-60% of terpenes (pinenes, terpinene and cymene), from 6-8% of cineole (accounting for the camphoraceous odour) and an alcohol terpineol, which supplies the pleasant nutmeg-like odour, also small amounts of sesquiterpenes and their corresponding alcohols. The valuable antiseptic properties of the oil and its spicy flavouring note should provide useful in dentrifices and mouthwashes."[1]

In a 1972 study done on various foot problems, i.e.: athletes foot, fungal infections, under-toenail corns, and callouses, Dr. Walker used tea tree oil in three different formulas; first as a pure oil; second, 40% oil with 10% isopropyl alcohol (which allows the oil to be water miscible, giving it another name, Melasol) and third, 8% oil with lanolin and chlorophyll. Sixty patients were involved in the study.

Forty were put on Melasol, 20 applied the ointment and 8 used the pure oil. Treatments varied from three weeks to four years. Out of 68 patients, 58 found relief from their foot problems over a period of six years. At lest four different fungal conditions are affiliated with athlete's foot, all of which responded well using tea tree oil.[2]

Standard treatments from fungal infections of the nails (onychomycosis) include debridement (removal of foreign matter and dead or damaged tissue), topical medication, and systemic therapies. This study assessed the efficacy and tolerability of topical applications of 1% clotrimazole solution compared with that of 100% Melaleuca alternifolia(tea tree) oil for the treatment of toenail onychomycosis.

In a six month double-blind, mutilcentre, randomised, controlled trial of 117 patients with distal subungal onychomycosis, participants received twice-daily applications of either 1% clotrimazole (CL) solution (topical antifungal drug), or 100% tea tree (TTO) oil. Debridement and clinical assessment were performed at 0, 1, 3 and 6 months; cultures obtained at 0 and 6 months. After 6 months, the two groups were comparable based on culture cure (CL=11%, TTO=18%). Three months later, approximately half of each group reported continued improvement or resolution.

It was concluded that, while all current therapies have high recurrence rates, the use of a topical preparation in conjunction with debridement is an appropriate initial treatment. Topical therapy, including the above two preparations, provides improvement in nail appearance and symptoms, while oral therapy has the disadvantage of high cost and potentially serious adverse effects.

This study reinforces the need to use a potent (in this case 100%) concentration of tea tree oil to produce better short-term and long-term efficacy. In children and those with skin sensitivity, a 70% solution may be better tolerated.[3]

Hospital patients are susceptible to contact with infectious bacteria that can be easily transmitted through hospital staff members. One such common bacteria is Staphylococcus aureus. The bacteria was tested for antibiotic resistance. Tea tree oil dilutions of 0.2% - 2.0% were added to the cultures of the bacteria, and growth measured. The effective tea tree dosage to inhabit the bacteria was 0.25%; 0.5% killed the bacteria. There were few side effects from skin irritation. These in-vitro results suggest tea tree oil may be useful in the treatment of MRSA carriage.[4]

"A new protocol for antimicrobial testing of oils" is a paper about the bactericidal testing of oil distilled from the tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia and M. linariifolia) for FDA recognition of tea tree oil as a safe and effective topical ingredient.

It would be the first natural topical antiseptic so recognised. The difficulty in testing tea tree oil is that the pure oil is not water soluble, and floats to the top of the bacterial medium. The FDA's proposed method for testing has been to use water soluble and/or miscible products together with a chemical neutraliser.

In this test, a protocol was established to test the oil in non-water-soluble form, using a non-toxic solvent. Tea tree oil demonstrated the FDA required bactericidal 3 log kill against Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Staphylococcus aureus, and Escherichia coli.

These three organism have been selected by the FDA because of their prevalence and life-threatening potential. The authors have petitioned the FDA to include this new protocol in proposed 21 CFR 333.71 (d) ii, "Bactericidal Assay Procedures" in the testing monograph for First Aid Antiseptic Drug Products.[5]

ISO International Standard 4730

ISO Standard 4730 states that tea tree oil should be extracted from the Melaleuca alternifolia, Melaleuca linafolia, or Melaleuca dissitifolia species of the Myrtaceae family. Other tea tree species, including Cajuput (Melaleuca Cajuputi), New Zealand Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium), New Zealand Ti-Tree (Cordyline australis), and Kanuka (Leptospermum ericoides), are not highly regarded, as they do not contain the same anti-microbial benefits, nor have they been in use for nearly a century as has Melaleuca alternifolia.


1. Avoid contact with eyes.
2. Keep out of the reach of children.
3. Do not take internally without consulting your health practitioner. This precaution does not include the use of toothpaste, mouthwash (without swallowing) or douche.
4. Dilute with cold pressed oil before use on baby's skin
5. Do a patch test before using on sensitive skin. Extremely sensitive skin may need dilutions of the pure oil. Dilutions of 1:250 are still bacteriostatic against pathogenic streptococci and staphylococci, typhous, pneumococcus, and gonococcus.
6. Store separately from homeopathic remedies.
7. Pregnant women should take extra precaution.

Patch Test

Put a few drops of tea tree oil on a cotton swab and apply to the inside of the arm. If you have an adverse reaction, irritation will appear on the skin within a matter of minutes. If the patch test doesn't indicate any irritation or allergic reaction, you may use a few drops of tea tree oil directly on the problem area of the skin once or twice a day.


Always keep tea tree oil in amber-coloured bottles and store in a cool dry place. The oil will stay potent and will not deteriorate from exposure to light, air, and heat. Do not store in plastic bottles. Cap should be on tight to avoid oxidation and evaporation.

Do not store or use tea tree oil near homoeopathic remedies, as it may contaminate your remedy.

Shelf life is generally two to three years if properly stored There have been reports of tea tree oil retaining its efficacy after being stored for much longer periods of time; however, perhaps due to stricter guidelines from various government regulatory bodies, it is now recommended that the oil be stored for a maximum of three years.

Mark Blumenthal, Executive Director of the American Botanical Council has said: "tea tree oil-one of nature's most versatile healing substances...for consumers and the growing number of physicians and pharmacists becoming interested in natural medicine."

Source for additional information

Australian Tea Tree Oil Guide third edition, revised, 1998 by Cynthia Olsen Published by Kali Press, Pagosa Springs, Co USA ISBN 1-890941-01


1 Penfold,A.R., and F.R. Morrison. "Some Notes on the Essential Oil of Melaleuca alternifolia." Australian Journal of Pharmacy, March 30, 1930. British Medical Journal, 1933.
2 M Walker, Foot Problems, Current Podiatry, April 1972.
3 D.S. Buck, D. M. Nidorf, and J.G. Addino, Treatment of Nail Fungus: A Comparison of Two Topical Preparations. Journal of Family Practice, 1994. June; 38(6): 601-5
4 Carson, C.F., B.D. Cookson, H.D. Farrelly, and T.V. Riley. "Susceptibility of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus to the essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia." Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 1995. 35: 421-424
5 Smith, Martha D., Patricia L. Navilliat. A new protocol for antimicrobial testing of oils." Journal of Microbiological Methods 28 (1997) 21-24.


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About Cynthia Olsen

Cynthia B. Olsen is the author of four best selling books, a successful publisher, researcher and speaker on complementary health, healing, ecology and spiritual awareness.
She was a leading figure in the introduction of Australian tea tree oil to the American health scene. She established the first large scale distribution of this remarkable healing oil in 1986. In 1990 she founded Kali Press.
Her book Essiac: A Native Herbal Cancer Remedy, won the small press book award in 1997. As a result of her research, Ms Olsen and Kali Press participated in a program to bring the benefits of this remarkable herbal treatment to the Second Mesa Pueblo of the Hopi Nation.
Ms Olsen currently resides in Colorado, and has five children and three grandchildren.

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