A renewed interest in natural substances has increased the availability of tea tree oil as a home remedy, and has also inspired research into its composition and beneficial properties. While it should never be taken internally due to potential toxicity, it is fantastic for topical treatment at home of
- hair growth
- ingrown hair
- superficial wounds
- bug bites
- athlete's foot
- fever blisters
Tea tree oil also acts as an anti-oxidant. It has been established in several preliminary studies that MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is susceptible to topically-applied tea tree oil. Additionally, it is being studied for its potential use a treatment in some forms of cancer. While those are all rather lofty applications for tea tree oil, it also has benefits for personal care and cosmetic use.
For your scalp
The antibacterial properties of tea tree oil enable it to be very effective in the treatment of acne, with fewer undesirable side effects than benzoyl peroxide. This is excellent news for those who suffer from this problem on their body, face, or scalp. It can also be used to treat areas of ingrown hairs or infected follicles caused by shaving. As an antifungal agent, a shampoo or scalp massage oil that contains tea tree oil helps get rid of dandruff and cradle cap. Tea tree oil is an effective solvent for sebum and other dirt or oily buildup on the scalp and hair, so it can be used to help provide a clear, clean surface that can absorb moisture and conditioning products more readily. Additionally, scalp massage with tea tree oil can help stimulate blood flow and reduce inflammation in the follicular cells, which may help enhance hair growth. It is very important to dissolve tea tree oil into another oil medium prior to applying it to the skin and hair though, as it can be very irritating and drying when used in its undiluted form.
For your hair
Based upon its properties, tea tree oil is a viable solution for those with dandruff, itchy scalp, and problems with sebum buildup. Preparing a solution that is no more than 5% by weight of tea tree oil and massaging it into the scalp and hair may provide excellent benefits. It can be dissolved into a conditioner, shampoo, or a carrier oil such as olive oil, coconut oil, or jojoba oil. While there is no definitive proof that it helps stimulate hair growth, it does seem likely to provide the optimal environment for scalp and follicular health, when applied occasionally in the proper concentration. Remember that it is an effective solvent of oil, which means it can be stripping and drying if used too often or in too strong of a solution. (Never use it straight!) Using it as an occasional clarifying agent for hair that is predominantly conditioner washed or that may have buildup of styling product on it is may also provide some benefit and make it easier to rehydrate and condition your hair. So use sparingly, and to good effect!
Compared to other oils
How does tea tree oil differ from other botanical oils often used for hair and skin care? Botanical oils, such as coconut oil, shea butter, olive oil, jojoba oil, and almond oil are obtained via the pressing and mechanical extraction of the fats within the fruits from which they are procured. These fats, called triglycerides, are large molecules comprised of glycerin with three medium chain fatty acids bonded to it. The hydrophobic nature and physical structure of these oils enable them to behave as excellent lubricants and emollients for hair and skin. Tea tree oil is an essential oil, which is obtained via steam distillation, fractional distillation, or solvent extraction of the leaves or stems of a plant. The resultant product is a mixture of volatile organic compounds that have distinctive smells and useful properties, but which do not have the structure to act as lubricants or emollients for hair or skin.
Tea tree oil specifically is made up of dozens of constituents, the majority of which are terpenes, sesquiterpenes, and their corresponding alcohols. Terpenes and sesquiterpenes are a large class of naturally occurring compounds with strong medical relevance, as touched upon briefly in the previous paragraphs. In addition to their medicinal properties, some (such as limonene and linalool) are used as fragrance additives in cleaning and cosmetic products. The major component in tea tree oil is the monoterpenic alcohol terpinen-4-ol, which comprises anywhere from 30-48% of the oil. Many of the complex benefits of tea tree oil have been attributed to this species. Some of the components of tea tree oil are toxic or irritants though, which is why it should not be ingested and should be diluted when applied topically. Several cases have been reported where tea tree oil exhibited estrogenic and antiandrogenic properties, so for this reason, frequency of use, concentration of tea tree oil in the product, and surface of area of coverage may be important factors to keep in mind.
Origin of Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil is a distinctively pungent essential oil obtained from the needle-like leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia, a plant that grows in wet, marshy areas of New South Wales and Queensland in Australia. It has long been prized by the indigenous Aboriginal people of Australia for its properties as an anti-infective and antifungal agent. Commercial farming of tea trees (so-named by British explorer,Captain James Cook, circa 1770) began once the medicinal properties of tea tree oil were studied, documented and published by Australian chemist, Dr. Arthur Penfold in the 1920’s). Subsequently, it became a common household remedy in Australia, and later was included as an indispensable tool in the medical and first aid kits for Australian soldiers during World War II. Demand for tea tree oil declined once antibiotics became widely available in the post-war era, and academic research focus also drifted toward more ‘modern’ topics.