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Is Tea Tree Oil Really All It’s Cracked up to Be?

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I don’t know what to do about tea tree oil.

A short month ago, I was telling anyone who would listen about this magic little miracle bottle I purchased on a whim from Walgreens. “It cures acne! And wounds! And mosquito bites! And nail fungus! And in-grown hairs! And 25 other things that I haven’t tried yet but WILL!” I was in a mania, squirting tea tree oil on my dermis with wild abandon, waiting for my glistening, smooth-chinned, fungus-free higher self to emerge from my pimpled cocoon.

When I took to the internet to explore other uses, however, the infallibility of tea tree oil was thrown into question. Wait a second, where was all the evidence? I began to second-guess everything, even the results I’d experienced from using tea tree oil on my own body. I didn’t know what to believe. What’s even in this little bottle? Does it work like I think it does? Why do so many people swear by it? I needed answers, so I got serious about finding the cold, hard facts and reached out to a couple of experts, too.

The Basics

Tea tree oil is a popular homeopathic remedy used as an antibacterial, antimicrobial or anti-acne treatment. A quick search yields up to a mind-blowing 75 possible uses for it. It’s made of an essential oil distilled from the leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia, a kind of myrtle tree that grows in Australia. International standards maintain that tea tree oil must meet 22 different parameters for it to be sold on the market. Anything cut with synthetic components or pine oil is not considered “effective” by the standards of the Australian Tea Tree Oil Industry Association. Supposedly it’s extremely difficult to tell the difference between fraudulent and real tea tree oil, so buyers should beware.

The Science

In searching for scientific corroboration of these uses, I was shocked to discover there is next to no proven research about the benefits of tea tree oil. I could only find a handful of studies conducted by the University of Western Australia (none of which were human trials) and a consumer report from the European Union. They found that tea tree oil is likely to cause contact dermatitis, a common type of rash, in levels of concentration over five percent. However, five percent is the minimum required to kill bacteria and bottles of legit tea tree oil are supposed to be at 100% concentration. This practical usage seems counter-intuitive and potentially dangerous.

Further, of tea tree oil’s 14 possible uses, as officially suggested by the Mayo Clinic (which includes things like treatment for dandruff, eye infections, genital herpes and thrush), only ONE isn’t cited as “needing more information,” and that’s acne.

The Experts

I felt more lost than ever trying to mine through dense Australian medical PDFs with conflicting information and years of natural wellness forum anecdotes, so I decided to consult an expert IRL. I spoke to Dr. Dendy Engelman, a dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery, to see if she could shed some light on using tea tree oil in her practice.

“Tea tree oil is beneficial in treating acne because it’s an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic, killing bacteria and taking down redness,” Dr. Engelman says. “Studies have found that five percent tea tree oil is as effective at treating acne as five percent benzoyl peroxide.” But for patients with more than the occasional pimple? Dr. Engelman recommends Differin, as retinoids are often “the first line of defense” against cystic or hormonal acne.

As for my other experiments in using tea tree oil for mosquito bites and cat scratches, Dr. Engelmen says tea tree oil as an antiseptic may work, though I might want to try hydrocortisone cream for severe bites. And for treating in-grown hairs? No dice. Dr. Engelman says tea tree oil “does not affect skin cell turnover.” At best, she says it may disinfect carnage caused by tweezers. She recommends salicylic acid for in-grown hairs instead.

I also talked to Dr. Ethan Ciment, podiatrist and practitioner at Chelsea Foot & Ankle, to find out if my use of tea tree oil on my toenails was legit or not. I started using it in June to combat a small fungal infection caused by keeping my nails coated in the same shade of pink polish since February 2015. They seemed to be getting better!

“There is no evidence-based, peer-reviewed scientific study that shows that tea tree oil eradicates fungal infections in nails on living patients,” Dr. Ciment says, bursting another of my bubbles. “Many patients will find that the nails will improve in their appearance and the nails will soften so that they’re easier to trim. Still, in each case I’ve seen, the moment they stop using the tea tree oil, the appearance of the nail reverts to the way it was before.” Apparently the organisms that cause the fungus live beneath the nail; the oil cannot penetrate that deeply on its own, even at 100% concentration.

Sure enough, when I stopped spritzing my sad toes each day, they pretty much returned to their new disgusting normal. To actually cure them, Dr. Ciment suggests I try oral antifungal medication or laser therapy.

The Upshot

It feels hard to be on tea tree oil’s side after doing some research and speaking with these doctors. Even if it may help the occasional mild pimple or mosquito bite, I also got recommendations for medicines that definitely would. But I hesitate to discredit it on the basis of Western medicine standards alone (the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia were originally used by East Coast Aboriginals as an antiseptic), or ignore the mountains of anecdotal evidence that it really can help, some from my friends and my own life.

I asked my roommate about his bottle of tea tree oil sitting in our bathroom and he uses it, watered down, for dandruff as well as for mild infections. He’s very happy with the results. Another friend across the country uses it for cystic acne only, though he finds it too abrasive to use on regular pimples. My most woo-woo friend though, the person I know most likely to be smudging her apartment with sage and curing her illnesses with teas, doesn’t dabble with tea tree oil. Too intense, she says.

Personally, I don’t think I’ll be using tea tree oil anymore, at least until there are more studies. I’m a skeptic at heart. I prefer my medicine peer-reviewed, but I have to admit I still have questions. I wish I could believe. Do you use tea tree oil? Have you seen results?

Bailey Williams is a Brooklyn-based writer and playwright. She just joined Twitter but has been taking annoying vacation photos on Instagram for some time @buffalobailey.

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