welcome to our Herbalist specialist, Melissa Hertzler!
TEA TREE OIL
So there I was...two days before my class reunion. I woke up that morning and did the same thing I always do - look in the mirror, half squinting from the light, making sure some radical transformation hadnt occurred whilst I slept. But this mornings gaze aroused a brief sense of urgency. I gave a second, more wide-eyed glance. Yes, a transformation HAD occurred during the wee hours of the morning...and fearfully not for the better. I looked more closely at the face in the mirror, and sure enough there was no mistaking it. For on that face was the red inflamed signs of the soon-to-be mother of all zits.
I panicked, quite possibly letting out a little shreak. Why now?! Tortured adolescent memories came flooding back. The taunts. "Pizza Face". "Moon Woman". God, no. Im a successful adult now. I was going to go to this reunion and be proud of who I had become. And now THIS. I had to act fast, for time was NOT on my side. Over the counter cremes? No. Too harsh and irritating. Visit the dermatologist? Yeah, right. Okay, calm down and think. Natural, fast-acting, non-irritating, powerful. Ive got it! Tea tree essential oil.
The tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) is a member of the Myrtaceae family, and is indigenous to Northern New South Wales, Australia. There are over 300 varieties of tea tree, but only one has the power to heal. Essential oil is extracted from the leaves of this fast-growing, renewable plant, yielding a pale, yellowish-green oil with a clean, camphorus smell similar to eucalyptus. It is a complex oil made up of almost 50 compounds. The tea tree has been used by the Bundjalung Aborigines in Australia for centuries to heal wounds, burns, and infections. The plant has antiseptic properties, as well as being a germicide, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, immune-boosting, cleanser/disinfectant. Its oil is unusual in that it is effective against all three types of infectious organisms: bacteria, viruses and fungi. When applied to cuts, burns or bruises, it can lessen pain, speed healing and reduce inflammation. A few drops can be added to bath water to soothe tight muscles, and the warm steam can help to clear congestion from lungs and sinuses. Tea tree essential oil is widely used in massage by aromatherapists to boost the immune system. Its even great for use around the house. A one percent solution in laundry water kills dust mites which is a common cause of asthma in many people.
Please note, tea tree essential oil can be dangerous if swallowed. As little as 5 ml can be toxic to a small child, so its important to keep it out of reach of children. External use, however, is acceptable. Normally, you should dilute any essential oil before applying it to the skin. Tea tree, however, is tolerated by most when applied directly without the use of a dilutant. Some individuals may be sensitive to tea tree, so always do a patch test before using anything new on your body. Apply a small amount to the back of your hand or your wrist. Leave for several hours, and see if a reaction develops. Never use to treat young children, internally or externally, and do not use if you are pregnant or nursing.
One of the most interesting (in my opinion) uses of tea tree essential oil is in the treatment of skin disorders. Acne is a very common disease involving the sebaceous glands. It effects about 90% of men and women at some point during their lives. Yet so much is still unknown about this scourge of youth. Heres what we do know. People with acne tend to excrete more sebaceous lipids onto the surface of the skin than unaffected people. In combination with normally shed dead skin cells, this may lead to clogging of the pores. Bacterial (propionibacterium acnes) infection is another component of acne. A clogged hair follicle becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. This can result in redness and puss-filled bumps (the dreaded zit). Hyperkeratosis of the follicular wall (hair follicle thickens and closes the pore opening) is thought to be another cause. Normally, dead cells are shed gradually in the follicle and expelled to the surface of the skin. During hormonal changes, these cells shed more rapidly and can stick together. When it mixes with sebum (oil), the follicle can clog and, well, you know - pimple. Hereditary is a factor in that it determines your hormonal secretions and susceptibility to hyperkeratosis (so if your parents suffered with it, chances are...) And dont underestimate the role of stress in acne flare ups. Diet, however, is currently thought to have little if any effect on acne. Topical treatment is difficult because the medicine needs to penetrate the skin in sufficient concentration, and be strong enough not to be inactivated by the presence of blood and puss (kind of gross, huh?). But it also has to be gentle enough to not cause irritation. Tea tree essential oil dissolves pus and kills bacteria, leaving the area clean and tissue undamaged.
In 1990, one of Australias leading dermatologists carried out an acne study at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney comparing 5% benzoyl peroxide and 5% tea tree essential oil. Both agents performed equally as well in reducing the acne, with tea tree oil having a slightly slower effect. However, comparing the two agents, tea tree oil had significantly less side effects, suggesting more frequent application and higher concentration is possible.
Looking to buy tea tree essential oil? The Australian government regulates that tea tree essential oil should have a terpinol level of 30% and cineole no more than 15%. Ideally, good tea tree oil should have a terpinol level of 35% and cineole less than 5%. So if buying mail order, ask for an analysis (any reputable dealer will have one). Buying from the store? Ask someone who works there to point you in the direction of a well-known supplier. The bottle should say "essential oil" and should have the botanical name listed (Melaleuca alternifolia).
Back to my story. After the panic wore off, I dabbed a bit of the precious oil onto the tiny inflamed culprit disfiguring my face. And I did the same later that night. And then again the next morning. At last, I finally went to the reunion unblemished. And was it BORING! Barely edible food, tacky hall, lame entertainment, dull conversation. Why was I so worried about what these people thought of me? Who are they to judge ME? And why was I so worried about one little insignificant bump on my face? Moral of the story: dont worry about what others think of you. Oh, yeah, and give tea tree oil a try.
No medical claims are implied by this article. Sources for information contained in this article are available upon request.