Tea Tree Essential Oil - A review by Tisserand
Australian Tea Tree Oil
A Review by Robert Tisserand
The International Journal of Aromatherapy Vol.1, No 1, February 1988
With special thanks to Christopher Dean, of Thursday Plantation and
The Australian Tea-Tree Industry Association, for his help in sourcing material.
Tea-tree (or ti-tree) oil is distilled from the fronds of a tree native to New South Wales, Australia, and parts of New Zealand. This tree, melaleuca alternifolia, is a member of the myrtle family, and is extremely hardy and disease-resistant. The leaves have been employed medicinally for centuries by New South Wales Aborigines, and the name is said to stem from a visit by Captain Cook, whose crew made a tea from the leaves.
Tea-tree oil is water-white in appearance, and has a fresh, spicey, agreeable odour. Until recently it was hardly known in aromatherapy outside Australia, but some recent clinical trials in France have helped to highlight its usefulness. Tea-tree oil turns out to be one of the most useful of all essential oils, especially as an antiseptic, and yet it has not previously been discussed in books on aromatherapy.
The first to recognize the unique qualities of the essential oil was a government chemist from Sydney, A. R. Penfold. In 1925 he announced the results of laboratory experiments which showed that the oil was twelve times stronger than phenol (carbolic acid) which was then the universal standard for antiseptic substances. This led to further research and to the increasing use of the oil in medicine, dentistry and as a home remedy.
In 1930 a report in the Medical Journal of Australia' commented on its non- toxicity and lack of irritancy. The report noted enthusiastically that tea-tree oil dissolved pus and left the surfaces of infected wounds clean so that its germicidal action became more effective and without any apparent damage to the tissues. 'Dirty wounds, such as are frequently seen as the result of street accidents, may be washed or syringed out with a 10% watery lotion; the solvent properties will loosen and bring away the dirt which is usually ground in ... healing will readily take place.' in 1936 the same journal reported a very bad case of diabetic gangrene successfully treated with tea-tree oil. In 1937 it was pointed out that one of the outstanding features of the oil is that the presence of blood, pus or other organic matter actually increases the oil's antiseptic powers by some 10 to 12 per cent.
During the Second World War tea-tree oil was issued in first aid kits to army and navy units in the tropical regions. At one point demand so outstripped supply that synthetic antiseptics had to be substituted. This, coupled with the fervent post-war interest in antibiotic drugs, led to a decline of interest in tea-tree, which persisted right up to the 1970s. (2)
In April 1972 the results of a very thorough study were published on the use of tea-tree oil in many common foot problems. (3) The study covered sixty patients and concluded that the oil had relieved or eliminated foot symptoms in fifty-eight of them. of these, results were graded as excellent in thirty-eight cases. The problems treated included athlete's foot, corns, callouses and bunions, hammer toes, skin peeling or cracking, fungal infection under toe-nails and bromhidrosis.* The study took place over a period of six years, and treatment times varied from three weeks to four years. In his conclusion the author observes that, overall, the best results were obtained in treating bromhidrosis, an unpleasant and embarrassing condition'. The athlete's foot cases were found to be caused by one or more of four fungi (including Candida albicans), all of which responded to tea-tree oil.
Ringworm is a condition closely related to athlete's foot, and almost as common. Both are caused by similar fungi. There have been a great many reports of ringworm being rapidly cleared up with teatree oil, and I have treated two cases, both of which were clear within three to four days.
Dr Paul Belaiche, Professor of Phytotherapy at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Paris Nord, published a number of trials using tea-tree oil in 1985. In his report on skin infections (5) he finds teatree effective against problems due to straphylococcus, streptococcus, or candida albicans. Both acne and impetigo are shown to be clinically vulnerable to the oil, and Belaiche reports the most convincing results of all in the treatment of fungal nailbed infections, frequently caused by candida. Eight out of eleven patients with nailbed infections showed complete recovery with twice daily application of the oil for one to three months.
*Bromhidrosis is the medical term for 'smelly feet' and is caused by malodorous perspiration.
In June 1962 an American report was published in obstetrics and Gynecology on the use of tea-tree oil in trichomonal vagin itis. (4) Vaginitis simply means vaginal inflammation, which in this case is caused by Trichomonas, a very tiny animal microbe, a glagellate creature, which is a common cause of greenish-yellow discharge, often foul smelling, and soreness in the area. The study comprised 130 women, including ninety-six cases of trichomonal vaginitis, and also several cases of thrush and cervicitis. As controls the author treated fifty other cases with standard antitrichomonal suppositories. The teatree oil was applied diluted by means of saturated tampons and douches, but was not given orally. Out of the 130 patients, all were successfully treated, and results were similar to the control group. Many patients commented on the pleasant odour of the oil, its cooling soothing effect and its efficiency in removing obnoxious vaginal odours. None of them complained of any irritation or burning.
More recently Dr Belaiche conducted two studies featuring tea-tree oil, the first of these on twenty-eight cases of thrush (infestation of the vagina with Candidaalbicans). Candida albicans (7) is normally present in the vagina, but its growth is kept in check by certain baceria. A common cause of thrush is antibiotic therapy which results in the beneficial bacteria being destroyed, thus allowing Candida to flourish. This results in a white discharge, often with itching, soreness and pain - a very common condition. For this study tea-tree oil was made into pessaries for insertion into the vagina once every night. After the first week one patient felt vaginal burning, so discontinued treatment, but none of the others had any similar symptoms. After thirty days the twenty-seven patients were examined, and twenty-three showed a complete cure with no further discharge or burning. The other four showed a moderate improvement. Belaiche observes that tea-tree oil is as effective as several other essential oils, but is notably less irritating: 'We have been happily astonished at the results obtained ... the essential oil of melaleuca has entered the team of the major essential oils and emerges as an antiseptic and anti- fungal weapon of the first order in phytoaromatherapy.'
In Belaiche's second study with teatree oil, twenty-six female patients, with chronic cystitis were given the oil orally over a period of six months.' (7) This was a double-blind trial, in which half the patients were given a placebo which had the odour of tea-tree. After six months none of the placebo group showed any improvement. Out of the thirteen who took tea-tree oil, seven were cured after six months, which, for such a chronic condition, is a significant result. As many have done before, Belaiche comments in his conclusion on the very low toxicity and irritancy of tea-tree oil.
FROM ATHLETE'S FOOT TO AIDS
Tea-tree oil has also been used successfully in the treatment of many other conditions and is now increasingly employed by herbal practitioners in Australia, as it is by the layperson. Cuts, wounds, ulcers, sores, boils, burns, ringworm, athlete's foot, psoriasis impetigo, nappy rash, anal and genital pruritis, cold sores, lice, urinary and vaginal infections, genital herpes, throat, bronchial and sinus infections, bad breath, mouth ulcers, infected gums and many other conditions have all responded remarkably well to treatment with this astonishing essential oil.
Why is tea-tree oil so effective? its chemical content is not dramatically different from eucalyptus or rosemary, except that it has an unusually high content of terpinen-4-ol, an alcohol, which constitutes some 35% of the best quality oils. It is also worth noting that a thorough analysis of the oil in 1978 (8)revealed the presence of four constituents which have not been found anywhere else in nature: viridiflorene, present at I %, B- terpineol (0.24%) 1-terpineol (trace) and allyl hexanoate (trace).
There is no recorded toxicity data on tea- tree oil, but terpinen-4-ol has a toxicity of 4.3 g/kg, which would indicate a toxicity for the oil of between 3 and 5, a completely safe rating. Christopher Dean reports four cases of children swallowing up to 25 mls of the oil with no significant side effects. in the worst instance mild diarrhoea and drowsiness was noticed, but both passed within 24 hours. (9) Because of its lower cineol content, teatree oil is reckoned to be less toxic and less irritant than eucalyptus oil.
Karen Cutter, a leading Sydney naturopath, has taken 120 drops of teatree oil orally each day for over three months to satisfy herself that her extreme recommendations for dosage are quite safe. Karen uses tea-tree oil extensively in the treatment of systemic candida, particularly when associated with AIDS. Her patients frequently ingest up to 3 mls (60 drops) daily for periods in excess of six months. Christopher Dean comments that "it has been most instructive to see the enormous degree of success which Karen has achieved with no apparent ill- effects over the past two years." (9)
Research has shown that tea-tree oil is four to five times stronger than the usual household disinfectants, and yet it stings far less when applied to minor abrasions, and of course is completely natural. Teatree oil has passed the Kelsey-Sykes test, which is the most rigorous antiseptic test in the world today. It has proved effective, both in vitro and in vivo against candida albicans, straphylococcus aureus, escherichia coli, trichophytia and streptococcus, and in vitro against pseudomonas aeruginosa, proteus vulgaris, pneumococcus, gonococcus, meningococcus, diphtheric bacterium, and aspergillus niger.
Because tea-tree oil is relative y inexpensive, completely natural, and the problems it is used for are among the easiest to research, it would appear to have a very bright future. It has been predicted that demand for the oil will multiply some fifty times over the next few year, and it is likely to feature in many natural remedies and patent medicines for home treatment. It is not a cure-all, but is one of the most exciting essential oils to emerge in recent years.
As an interesting conclusion, the following sheds some light on the antitoxic properties of tea-tree oil.
The venom toxicity of the black widow spider may be matched by that of the funnel web spider found only in New South Wales, Australia. This spider first made the news in 1927 when a two-yearold boy was bitten by one and died within ninety minutes. Since then five other deaths have been reported. The latest was a seventeen- year-old pregnant woman, who died in Sydneyin 1970 after being bitten on the breast.
The following account dates from May 1983, and comes from Harry H. Bungwahl, New South Wales.
"A rather extraordinary episode happened to me recently involving teatree oil. I was bitten on the foot by a funnel- web spider... it happened at night time about I a.m. He gave me a vicious bite, and it was very painful ... I lay down on the bed and tried to think of some way to soothe the pain of the bite, which was very severe. I then thought of the small bottle of tea-tree oil which was in the bathroom. My wife went and got it and applied some to the bite and there was an immediate easing of the pain. My wife then went to ring up Taree Hospital, and while she was doing that I put some more tea-tree oil onto the bite which, in a short time, stopped being panful! My son drove me to the Taree hospital - the foot was no longer painful but my lips and fingers were still tingling . . . the spider was identified as a male funnel-web spider all right ... I was given no treatment but was kept under observation for a period of four hours, and then discharged."
It is interesting that both tea-tree oil and the funnel web spider are found only in New South Wales.
This review is based on text from Aromatherapy for Everyone by Robert Tisserand, which is being published in the UK by Penguin Books, on April 28th 1988.
1. E. Humphrey, 'A New Australian Germicide', Medical Journal of Australia, )an uary 1930, p.417.
2. A . Penfold, 'Some Notes on the Essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia', Australian Journal of Pharmacology, March 1937, p.274.
3. M. Walker, 'Clinical Investigation of Australian Melaleuca alternifolia Oil for a Variety of Common Foot Problems', Current Podiatry, April 1972.
4. E. Pena, 'Melaleuca alternifolia Oil: its use for Trichomonal Vaginitis and Other Vaginal Infections', Obstetrics and Gynecology, vol. 19 (6) 1962. pp. 793-5.
5. P. Belaiche, 'Treatment of Skin infections, with the Essential Oil of Melaleuca alternifolia', Phytotherapie, vol. 15, 1985, pp. 15-17.
6. P. Belaiche, 'Treatment of Vaginal Infections of Candida albicans with the Essential Oil of Melaleuca alternifolia, ibid, pp. 13-15.
7. P. Belaiche, 'Germicidal Properties of the Essential Oil of Melaleuca alternifolia Related to Urinary Infections and Chronic Ideopathic Colibaccillus', ibid, pp. 9-11.
8. G. Swords and G. L. K. Hunter, 'Composition of Australian Tea-Tree Oil (Melaleuca alternifolia)', Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, vol. 26, 1978, pp. 734-9.
9. C. Dean, Private correspondence with the author, August 1987.
10. C. Dean, A series of private laboratory tests including
Preservative Effectiveness Test (1975) and TGA Test for Hospital Grade Dirty Conditions (1987).