Tea tree oil is one of those mythical products rumored to treat basically everything. Depending on who you ask, this essential oil is miraculous and able to target issues from acne to dandruff to even cold sores.
On the one hand, you might love the idea that a single product might be able to fix a variety of your skin concerns. On the other, if your medicine cabinet is a graveyard of defective beauty purchases, you might want to avoid the disappointment of yet another “super-product” that doesn’t do much.
So, how legit is all the fuss surrounding tea tree oil? Actually, first…what exactly is it? (Besides a substance that can make your surroundings feel like a spa with just one whiff, obviously.)
Tea tree oil is a liquid sourced by steaming the leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia, a plant native to Australia.
This seemingly simple oil contains around 100 different components, including molecules called terpenes that seem to exhibit antimicrobial properties, Mirela Mitan, Ph.D., New York-based biochemist and founder of the skin-care line MMXV Infinitude, tells SELF. Specifically, there’s a lot of interest surrounding one active ingredient called terpinen-4-ol. Researchers are investigating tea tree oil’s capacity to kill a variety of microorganisms on the skin thanks to elements like terpenes.
“Although tea tree oil has many good properties, there aren’t a lot of great randomized control trials proving its efficacy in most dermatological conditions,” Brooklyn-based board-certified dermatologist Robert Finney, M.D., tells SELF. Even without a wealth of information on tea tree oil and skin, we can explore what experts have discovered so far.
There’s some evidence that the antibacterial properties of tea tree oil may be helpful in treating a variety of skin issues, including acne.
A 2015 review in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents dove into seven studies on how tea tree oil works for acne, finding that weeks-long, twice-daily application of over-the-counter products containing at least 5 percent tea tree oil seemed to reduce the lesions.
But many of the studies included weren’t the type of exhaustive, methodologically sound trials necessary to state that tea tree oil absolutely works for acne. Compounding this notion, a 2016 review in Cochrane examined the efficacy of various acne treatments, looking through 35 studies that included 3,227 participants, only finding “low-quality” evidence that gel containing 5 percent tea tree oil may help reduce acne.
If tea tree oil does have an effect on acne, how does it work? Tea tree oil has the potential to lower bacteria levels on the skin, reducing inflammation and targeting breakouts, Joshua Zeichner, M.D., New York City-based board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, tells SELF.
But acne isn’t just a bacteria-driven condition. “Overproduction of oil and formation [of] clogged pores can trigger acne, too,” says Dr. Finney. So can heightened levels of hormones called androgens, the Mayo Clinic explains. As such, “Although tea tree oil may help, it’s not a standalone treatment,” Dr. Finney says. (If you have a hunch that tea tree oil would just add gunk to your pores, know that it’s actually very liquidy and noncomedogenic, meaning it shouldn’t clog your skin, Dr. Finney says.)
It appears as though tea tree oil may also contain antifungal powers, meaning it could be useful in treating issues like dandruff.
Seborrheic dermatitis is often behind dandruff, according to the Mayo Clinic, and it typically stems from an overproduction of yeast called Malassezia furfur. (Malassezia furfur can also cause dandruff unrelated to seborrheic dermatitis.) “When yeast levels rise on the scalp, they promote inflammation with subsequent flaking and itching,” says Dr. Zeichner.
Tea tree oil may lower levels of yeast and combat the inflammatory response that can strike because of it. A 2013 review in International Journal of Dermatology noted that various studies have suggested shampoos with 5 percent tea tree oil may be able to subdue Malassezia furfur and help tame mild to moderate dandruff. If a shampoo with tea tree oil seems to reduce your dandruff, lathering up two to three times a week may be all you need to keep flakes at bay, says Dr. Finney.
However, tea tree oil’s effect on severe dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis is unclear. For more stubborn flare-ups, experts recommend sticking to traditional dandruff treatments such as over-the-counter shampoos containing the antifungal and antibacterial ingredient pyrithione zinc or prescription medicines from your dermatologist.
So what about using tea tree oil to target fungal issues besides dandruff, like ringworm (a red, circular rash with clear, scaly, or bumpy skin in the middle), athlete’s foot (a red, scaly rash that usually starts between the toes and may also cause itching, stinging, and burning), and nail fungus (which usually starts as a white or yellow spot under the tip of your nail and can lead to thickening and discoloration of the nail as the infection goes deeper)? Dr. Zeichner recommends sticking to conventional antifungal treatments for these conditions.
Ringworm and athlete’s foot are contagious, and nail fungus can be persistent and cause pain if not treated properly. It’s true that tea tree oil may halt and defeat fungal infections by breaking down the outer layer of fungal cells and disrupting how they function, ultimately preventing them from dividing and growing. But that mechanism isn’t reliable enough to depend on tea tree oil to treat these issues. It’s important to see your doctor and follow their treatment guidelines, such as using topical or oral antifungal medications.
What about using tea tree oil for things like cold sores and warts?
The kind of frustrating issue here is that it does seem like there’s scientific reason to believe tea tree oil may have an effect on viruses—but that doesn’t mean you should use it for that purpose.
A couple of studies, mainly on cell cultures, have analyzed whether or not tea tree oil can treat infections caused by the herpes simplex virus or human papillomavirus. So far, results have been mixed, with some studies showing inhibited virus replication and others showing basically none.
Translation: Don’t believe anything you hear that says tea tree oil can treat herpes outbreaks or warts from an HPV infection. That’s not a medical fact as of yet, and it’s not completely clear how any study-based results that show promise here would actually work in people IRL.
Instead, talk to your doctor about treating oral or genital herpes outbreaks with prescription antiviral medications such as acyclovir or valacyclovir, Dr. Finney says. As for warts, it depends on the type you’re dealing with. For something like a plantar wart, your doctor may recommend salicylic acid treatments to exfoliate the skin, removing layers of the wart over time, according to the Mayo Clinic. Freezing off the wart might be another option, as it is with genital warts, which you may also be able to treat with methods like creams to bolster your immune system, the Mayo Clinic notes.
Heads up: Tea tree oil can cause irritation or even an allergic reaction.
Since essential oils are highly concentrated botanical extracts, they can be aggravating when used directly on the skin, says Dr. Zeichner. In some people, they can even cause the red, itchy rash known as contact dermatitis, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. As tea tree oil ages, the odds of an allergic reaction may increase.
All of this is to say that tea tree oil generally isn’t a good idea if you have sensitive skin or related conditions like eczema or rosacea. Having sensitive skin means the top layer of your skin doesn’t protect you from inflammation and infection as well as it should. “When the skin barrier is severely disrupted, it develops microscopic cracks with lots of dehydration,” says Dr. Zeichner. “Applying tea tree oil to an outer skin layer that’s already weakened to this degree can cause significant irritation and dryness.”
If you think your skin can handle tea tree oil and you’re determined to try it, we’ve got a few tips to help your experiment go smoothly.
Interested in mixing up your own tea-tree concoction? First, know that results may depend on the brand of oil you choose. “Since over-the-counter preparations aren’t FDA-controlled, they can vary in potency,” says Dr. Finney. Also, because tea tree oil can oxidize when exposed to too much light and air, Mitan recommends choosing a product with airtight, dark packaging and using it within the timeframe recommended on the label.
Diluting tea tree oil in some way may help you avoid a skin freakout. Until more research is done to confirm the best ways to use tea tree oil on your skin, you might want to start by adding a few drops when applying products you already use, like your go-to cleanser, Connecticut-based cosmetic chemist Joseph J. Cincotta, Ph.D., tells SELF. The idea is to score any potential antimicrobial benefits sans skin irritation. If the odor is too strong for you or any irritation occurs, Cincotta suggests trying fewer drops until you find your skin’s sweet spot.
You’ll sometimes see tea tree oil sold in combination with hydrating carrier oils such as olive, coconut, or avocado oil. This is supposed to help cut down on irritation, but these oils can have a pore-clogging effect, says Dr. Finney. For this reason, he recommends diluting tea tree oil in a water-soluble serum when using it to fight acne.
Whether you’re playing beauty chemist or buying a tea tree oil-based product, it can be smart to do some patch testing first. Once a day for about a week, rub diluted tea tree oil (or the product in question) on a discreet patch of skin, like your forearm. Keep watch for irritation, and dilute it even more if you need to. See how it goes, and let your skin make the final decision.