Aboriginals along the East coast used tea tree for centuries as an antimicrobial tool; they crushed the leaves into a paste and dressed wounds with it, to prevent bacterial infection. The oils were extracted from the leaves and used for treating a sore throat or a cough.
Today tea tree oil is still found in the cupboards of many natural remedy lovers, because it’s a good treatment for many bacterial infections like athlete’s foot and dermatitis…
…and luckily for us, it’s a highly underrated treatment for acne.
Tea tree oil is supported by an avalanche of evidence
Firstly, we have this February 2015 article published in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, which reviewed scientific studies on the effectiveness of tea tree oil against acne. The scientists examined several scientific studies on acne performed between 2005 and 2014. The studies found that products infused with tea tree oil slashed acne lesions by at least 23.7% and up to 62.1%. Look at these specific studies:
- Scientists in this double blind clinical trial from 2007 gathered 60 acne patients with mild to moderate acne. They were randomly divided into two groups of 30. One group had 5% tea tree oil gel applied to their acne for 45 days and the other was given a placebo. Both groups were examined every 15 days with the total acne lesions counting (TLC) index and the acne severity index (ASI). While there were no significant differences between the age, gender, nationality and other demographic characteristics, the tea tree oil patients enjoyed a far faster reduction in acne. Tea tree oil gel was 3.55 times and 5.75 times more effective than placebo at reducing TLC and ASI. The scientists concluded that “topical 5% tea tree oil is an effective treatment for mild to moderate acne vulgaris”.
- In this 2002 study, 27 patients had their skin injected with the immune agent histamine, to induce inflammation in the skin. After 20 minutes, 100% tea tree oil was then applied to 21 patients with the other 6 receiving paraffin oil. Paraffin had no effect on histamine induced inflammation, but tea tree oil caused significant improvements in 10 minutes. That’s good news, because acne is an inflammatory disease at its root.
Then you have the user reviews to consider. On acne.org, tea tree oil gets a user score of 4.1/5 and 87% of users would recommend it to a friend. You always need to remember that user reviews for acne products can be tainted by overoptimistic ideas and businesses simply planting the stories to gain publicity and sales. Nevertheless, it’s a promising sign. Most of the acne stories seem genuine.
Some reported benefits from topical tea tree oil include…
- Reduced lifespan of acne; tea tree oil helped to dry active pimples out.
- Acne which went away after 24 hours of exposure.
- “Giant, angry pimple” calmed down massively overnight.
- Clearing of angry acne when nothing else would work.
It’s clear from these stories that tea tree oil is great at calming down the most aggressive acne. That’s not all either. According to this scientific review published in 2012, applying a 5% tea tree oil gel was just as effective as 5% benzoyl peroxide treatments, like Oxy-5 and Benzac AC, for treating acne.
That’s a similar concentration to a BP cream in the shops. According to the review, tea tree oil kills acne more slowly than benzoyl peroxide, but seems to be less irritating to skin on your face. They found that when applied twice daily for 45 days, tea tree oil reduced several acne symptoms, including acne severity.
Benzoyl Peroxide is hyped as the be all and end all of acne treatments but it’s notorious for irritating the skin. Side effects of BP include burning of the skin, redness, peeling, and in the long term, more acne. Benzoyl Peroxide works by blasting p.acnes (acne bacteria) with free radicals to destroy them. The problem is that this inflames your skin and provides perfect conditions for pores to get blocked.
BP can be effective but it’s basically the nuclear weapon of acne treatments. Tea tree oil, meanwhile, has a few side effects, which include…
The problems are similar to those from Benzoyl Peroxide, but studies find that they are far milder. There are a few cases of individual allergic reactions, stronger reactions among sensitive skin, and so on. Tea tree oil is highly toxic when ingested; it can give you indigestion, cramps, pain and even hallucinations, so keep it away from your mouth.
However, tea tree oil will only worsen your acne if it’s particularly sensitive, whereas with BP it’s a game of Russian roulette every time. Tea tree oil is also safer for acne than other natural treatments like apple cider vinegar.
The acne science behind tea tree
Tea tree oil has many complicated compounds with roughly 10 of potent medicinal power being identified so far. The most famous is Terpinen 4-ol, a terpene antioxidant which in nature, is only found in sizeable quantities in tea tree oil and also nutmeg.
Terpinen 4-ol is responsible for the lion’s share of acne benefits. It reduces acne in two ways, the first of which is wiping out acne bacteria.
Many of tea tree oil’s famous attributes, like keeping wounds free from infection, are thanks to its antibacterial powers. Terpinen 4-ol can inhibit endless common bacterial strains including Staphylococcus aureus, epidermidis, and importantly for us, p.acnes. This study found that Terpinen 4-ol killed acne bacteria very effectively. Scientists applied tea tree oil to various types of bacteria. As well as inhibiting the strains above, terpinin-4-ol was potent at inhibiting p.acnes.
This means that if you apply tea tree oil to acne, the bacteria will be crippled and the pore won’t grow any more inflamed. It will stop your immune system from assaulting the p.acnes bacteria and spreading the damage.
Also, while Terpinen 4-ol was the compound in tea tree oil most responsible for killing p.acnes, scientists also noted that several other compounds had the same effect. Alpha-terpineol and alpha-pinene inhibited p.acnes excellently, as did several unidentified compounds.
Thus the tea tree oil is twice as strong against acne and who knows what other beneficial substances are lurking in there.
Just review the other abilities of tea tree oil: it’s famous for treating atopic dermatitis, ringworm, and athlete’s foot, and those are all connected to bacterial growth. Tea tree oil is so great at keeping bacteria at bay that dentists and surgeons in the 1920s used it for sterilising wounds and infections. It can even inhibit the dreaded Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureas (MRSA), which conventional medicine has failed to prevent from infecting many patients in hospitals.
It’s clear that tea tree oil is an antibacterial juggernaut and that makes it excellent for cutting off the fuel for your acne.
Tea tree oil has localised anti-inflammatory powers
Firstly, the 2002 study discussed above demonstrated that tea tree oil inhibits histamine, which is excellent because histamine is a key inflammatory chemical that’s behind allergic reactions like rashes and swelling.
Then there’s this study which specifically examined the effects of terpinen 4-ol on inflammatory chemicals when applied topically to human cells. Scientists found that the compound inhibited TNF alpha, IL-1beta and IL-10, which are some of the worst chemicals for inflaming your acne, by 50%. Two other compounds, a-terpineol and 1,8-cineole, were examined, but terpinen 4-ol was the most anti-inflammatory. The massive 50% reduction in inflammation was achieved after 40 hours of exposure, so you could get good results after just ten hours in bed at night.
Another study performed in 2014 also examined the effects of tea tree oil on inflammatory chemicals. The results were nearly identical.
To cure acne it’s important to lower your skin’s levels of inflammation by restraining your immune system; by lowering the inflammation in the entirety of your body. However it’s also smart to directly inhibit the inflammatory chemicals in your acne and terpinen 4-ol is excellent at doing that.
What’s important is to use tea tree oil in lower doses to avoid side effects. There’s one compound which tea tree oil contains in varying amounts called 8–cineole, a skin irritant that causes allergic reactions in some skin types. These rashes are usually mild and itchy, but they can develop into blisters. In some cases, there are serious allergic reactions. These problems aren’t common, but if you slather tons of oil on yourself they will happen. A small amount of tea tree oil is highly anti-inflammatory, but it’s the exact opposite if you go overboard.
What you have to do is firstly, use a small amount, because that’ll get the job done anyway.
Secondly, there are many stories on the internet where patients tried to apply tea tree oil to their entire skin in order to prevent breakouts. They were shocked to find that they got rashes and in some cases blisters. In fact, some people even got acne in areas where they never had it before.
The ultimate acne strategy is thus to only apply tea tree oil to red, swollen and sensitive pimples. Lowering inflammation and preventing further growth of p.acnes bacteria is where tea tree oil shines, not as a general skin enhancer. It’s no good for enriching the tone of your skin, but it’s great for reducing redness and swelling, and doing that fast.
The rule is thus: tea tree oil is best as an acne killing tool, whereas for acne prevention, you need something milder like jojoba oil.
The best tea tree oil for acne
Like any other natural cosmetic ingredients, there’s a lot of acne products that use it simply for marketing value rather than to make the product more effective. According to the authors of one study:
- “Tea tree oil may be included as the active therapeutic agent or at lower levels that are unlikely to have therapeutic benefit but instead serve to increase the appeal or marketability of the product.”
In other words, a bottle marked with “featuring natural tea tree oil extract” is often not designed to enrich your skin, but rather the manufacturer’s bank account. Additionally, many formulated creams and cleansers are too weak; the study comparing Benzoyl Peroxide to tea tree oil found that at least 5% concentration is necessary to reduce acne lesions. Some tea tree oils aren’t even extracted from the correct plant, and you’ve got the risk of allergies to consider too.
Consequently there’s several useful strategies to make tea tree oil optimal for destroying acne:
- Buy a pure, 100% organic tea tree oil. You’ll know exactly what your acne’s getting with this and won’t be caught out by creams and soaps which exactly have minuscule quantities. Using the full 100% strength will irritate the skin, so it’s best to dilute the solution in water first, and then apply to a cotton puff. Being organic will ensure that the product is pure, and organic tea tree oil often has higher quantities of terpinen 4-ol too.
- Buy tea tree oil in a dark bottle. This prevents sunlight from oxidising the oil. Studies show that when exposed to light, terpinen 4-ol can rapidly break down and become useless for acne. Oxidised tea tree oil is thus less potent at reducing inflammation and it’s also responsible for more allergic acne reactions than fresh oil, because light increases the levels of a hydrocarbon called para-cymene, which is a known skin irritant.
- Perform an allergy test. The end goal with tea tree oil is to make your acne less red and inflamed. If your skin is especially sensitive to para-cymene or 8-cnineole then you could make your skin worse. Therefore it’s a smart idea to dilute some tea tree oil with water and dab a small amount on your arm or hand. If your skin reddens and develops a rash then you’re one of the unfortunate few whose acne cannot tolerate tea tree oil. If not, then you’re good to go.
- Check the concentration of terpinen 4-ol. Some companies analyse their tea tree oil in a lab and display the percentage by volume of terpinen 4-ol on the bottle. Since this is the killer antibacterial agent for acne, it’s smart to look for higher concentrations. Not all bottles display concentrations but they range from 10% to 40%. You should shoot for higher, but some people react strongly to terpinen 4-ol. You could do an experiment where you test, say, a 15% terpinen 4-ol solution, and then try a 35% version.
- Get the finest from Australia. The real tea tree plant grows in Australia, so make sure your tea tree oil or its sales page says “sourced from Australia” or something similar.
A product which fills all the best criteria for your acne is this NOW Foods Tea Tree Oil. It’s got a dark bottle and it’s pure, so you can dilute and apply it to acne how you please.
Conclusion – tea tree oil is a great topical acne treatment
Tea tree oil is a natural treatment for acne that seems to work excellently. It thrashes BP because although it calms pimples more slowly, it’s far less likely to backfire and cause new acne.
Remember that 5% tea tree oil is supposedly the optimal, but as with any acne treatment, it’s a great idea to experiment and see whether your skin does react. You might have stronger skin against the particular compounds in tea tree oil that allows you to enjoy the acne benefits without getting rashes or blisters that others would get with higher concentrations. Who knows?
What’s certain is that if you find the sweet spot for your skin, tea tree oil is one of the better topical acne treatments you could use.
Of course, you won’t cure your acne with topical treatments alone because acne starts inside the body. You have to change your diet and your lifestyle. However tea tree oil is an excellent short term solution for acne, if you want to calm an angry pimple on the night of a hot date or important business meeting.
Thanks for reading!