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Tea tree oil - benefits, history (scurvy!) and uses

Updated on October 20, 2011

An introduction to tea tree

Many years ago, a secret lagoon hidden off the Australian coast reputedly had magical medical powers. The local natives would bathe in its waters to cure burns and wounds.

This lagoon, as it turned out, had several native trees growing near its banks, and their falling leaves transformed the pool into an antiseptic bath. The colour of the water was turned brown by the oil from the leaves, hence the "tea" name in English

Now we know that the melaleuca tree, also known as the tea tree, produces an oil with many healing properties.

Read on to discover the many uses of this amazing essential oil, for skin, hair, and for use in and around the home.

Tea tree oil, showing the very pale golden colour characteristic of tea tree essential oil
Tea tree oil, showing the very pale golden colour characteristic of tea tree essential oil

History of the tea tree and tea tree oil

The tea tree, also known as Melaleuca alternifolia, produces a pale golden-colored essential oil obtained by steam distillation of the leaves.

The tree is native to Australia, and the aborigines of the region were the first to discover the healing properties of tea tree essential oil. They treated cuts, burns, and skin infections by crushing the leaves of the tea tree and applying them to the affected area.

In the 1770s, the British explorer Captain Cook noticed the native Australians brewing an herbal tea from the tree’s leaves.

He brewed tea of his own from the plant and gave it to his crew to prevent scurvy, coining the name “tea tree.”(Don't try this at home, it's not terribly good for you in general, although it does contain vitamin C which prevents and cures scurvy).

Australian scientists began testing the antibacterial properties of tea tree oil in the 1920s. A doctor found that tea tree oil was at least ten times more effective than the standard antiseptics in use at the time.

Soon, physicians and hospitals began using the oil to sterilize instruments and prevent infection. Australians then began to use the oil in household medicine kits as a common treatment for skin conditions and fungal infections.

During World War II, tea tree oil was standard issue in the first-aid kits given to all Australian soldiers and sailors.

Tea tree essential oil benefits

Today, many studies have proven what the aborigines knew about the oil.

One modern test proved that tea tree oil is effective against fifty-eight clinical pathogens.

Tea tree oil is effective against Escherichia coli and is showing promise of being a treatment for Staphylococcus aureus, including MRSA (an antibiotic-resistant type of staph).

Research also indicates that tea tree oil kills the germs that cause acne, warts, and boils, and that it inhibits infections from colonising first and second-degree burns.

Tea tree oil is also reputed to speed healing and to have a mild analgesic effect, effectively reducing pain and inflammation. For this reason, the oil is often found in burn ointments and sunburn lotions.

Other tea tree oil benefits include:

  • Athlete's foot treatment: After twice daily applications for four weeks, tea tree oil solutions were found to be moderately effective against this persistent foot fungus.

  • Acne zapper: A recent study compared the effectiveness of tea tree oil gel with benzoyl peroxide lotion in people with mild to moderate acne. People in both groups had a significant reduction in acne lesions, and although the tea tree oil took longer to work initially, the patients who used it had fewer side effects.

  • Dandruff remedy: A study examined the use of tea tree oil shampoo in people with mild to moderate dandruff. After four weeks, the tea tree oil shampoo significantly reduced symptoms of dandruff.

Household uses of tea tree essential oil

  • Super disinfectant: Add a teaspoon of pure tea tree essential oil to a gallon of water when washing windows, floors, toilets, bathrooms and kitchen surfaces.

  • Laundry aid: Add two teaspoons of tea tree oil to your washing machine load for a fragrant, fresh wash.

  • Pest deterrent: Household ants and other pests avoid tea tree oil, so a few drops placed at the point of entry will deter them. Wipe cupboards with an oil and water solution to chase away cockroaches.

  • Magic eraser: Remove scuff marks from a linoleum floor by rubbing a few drops of oil on the spot, then wipe the marks away with a damp cloth.

  • Mildew help: Wipe walls and showers with a tea tree oil/water solution to prevent mildew growth.

  • Sticky saviour: To remove chewing gum from hair, apply tea tree plant oil. The gum will lose its stickiness and you can wipe it away.

  • Cloth nappy / diaper soak: Add 20 drops tea tree oil to approximately one gallon of water, stir, and soak the nappies overnight in the mixture.

A plantation in New South Wales, Australia, which produces tea tree oil. This image is in the public domain.
A plantation in New South Wales, Australia, which produces tea tree oil. This image is in the public domain.

Herbal Lore

During World War II, workers in Australian munition factories used tea tree oil to heal cuts on their hands from metal filings and machinery. The antiseptic balm was called “cutting oil.”

Cautions and side effects of tea tree oil use

Tea tree oil should never be taken internally, even in small doses. It can cause impaired immune function, diarrhea, and potentially fatal central nervous system depression.

The tea tree oil in commercial toothpastes and mouthwashes is generally considered to be acceptable because it is not swallowed.

According to studies, tea tree oil may alter hormone levels. There have been three reports of topical tea tree plant products causing unexplained breast enlargement in boys. People with hormone-sensitive cancers should also avoid tea tree oil.

Don't use tea tree oil if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, and keep tea tree oil out of the reach of children and pets. Occasionally, people may have allergic reactions to undiluted tea tree oil, ranging from mild contact dermatitis to severe blisters and itching.


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    • breathe2travel profile image

      breathe2travel 5 years ago from Gulf Coast, USA

      I definitely "believe" in tea tree oil - for cleaning and health!

      We used a dab beneath our noses while in the Jamaican mountains to soothe car sickness. I add a few drops to coconut oil and use as a moisturizer occasionally or irritated skin salve - results are QUICK.

      Voted up, useful & interesting. :) Best regards!

    • profile image

      Headaches Everyday 6 years ago

      Thanks for this informative hub on tree oils. I was aware of its benefit as a pest deterrent, but i was not aware of the other uses.

    • profile image

      Monique 7 years ago

      I love tea tree oil and use it everywhere: in my laundry I add about 15 drops to a load of laundry and wash in hot water for germ killing; for general surface cleaning, I mix a 1:1 ratio of water and white vinegar and add 20 drops of tea tree oil. I use this to effectively clean and disinfect kitchen counters, door handles, fridge handles, etc.

      Some people do not like the smell, but I love it; it smells like "clean" :)

    • skye2day profile image

      skye2day 7 years ago from Rocky Mountains

      Plants and Oils You are wealth of information. I am grateful I landed on your hub. I am Blessed. Thank You for doing all this fabulous research on all of your oils. You are bookmarked and rated THUMBS UP. I pray many find you because there is much wisdom in your hubs along with huge money and time savers. Great JOB. Your writing is smooth and organized. Very Nice.

      Many Blessings Plants and Oils.

      Sending Hugs. (-:

    • Plants and Oils profile image

      Plants and Oils 8 years ago from England

      I agree, it's a lovely sharp, clean type of smell, I reckon. Glad you found it interesting!

    • profile image

      Raggits 8 years ago

      Great hub! I've been using tea tree oil for about 20 years now and I didn't know half this information. A chiropractor told me about it for acne and it works great. I love the smell too. Thanks again :)

    • Plants and Oils profile image

      Plants and Oils 8 years ago from England

      I'm glad you both liked it - tea tree oil is wonderful stuff!

    • Melody Lagrimas profile image

      Melody Lagrimas 8 years ago from Philippines

      Very enlightening. Have heard of tea tree oil a lot.

    • myawn profile image

      myawn 8 years ago from Florida

      I've used tea tree oil and it really works on my face when it is too dry. Works around my fingernails too.

    • Plants and Oils profile image

      Plants and Oils 8 years ago from England

      I agree, it's not wise to throw out centuries of accumulated experience without at least taking a closer look.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Amazing product! I am learning so much from your hubs regarding all these natural herbs, etc.

      It seems the native people in many different cultures all were closer to the earth and had already discovered things that worked for various maladies eons ago. Good to know that we are looking at these things more seriously and are able to use more natural ingredients in our lives today.

      Thanks for another very informative hub.

    • Plants and Oils profile image

      Plants and Oils 8 years ago from England

      Tea tree oil is wonderful stuff - great for greasy skin and hair, too (the subject of a future article)

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

      Great to read about the oil and its many uses - I didn't know they could be used to keep ants away! I use a few drops in a bowl of water and sponge my dogs twice a week and I've found it's a great way to keep ticks and fleas away.

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 8 years ago from UK

      I've used tea tree oil myself, and found it very useful as an antiseptic. It even has an antiseptic smell! I didn't know that it originated in Australia, although that makes sense.

    • BrianS profile image

      Brian Stephens 8 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

      I have read a lot about the benefits of tea tree oil recently and a lot of what I have read has been supported by users of the product. Seems to me this really is and effective natural product.