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Studies are available that show promising application of tea tree oil for various dermatologic infections such as bacterial and fungal conditions and molluscum as well as inflammatory conditions such as acne
Tea tree oil is an essential oil that is obtained through steam distillation of the leaves of the native Australian coastal tree, Melaleuca alternifolia. M. alternifolia is an evergreen shrub with needle-like leaves that grows from 5 to 8 meters in height. Tea tree oil has been used in a wide variety of medicinal applications from coughs and colds to skin infections.1 Relevant to dermatology, tea tree oil can be found in over-the-counter soaps, astringents and shampoos and is typically added to these products for its antimicrobial properties.
There have been a number of papers describing the antiseptic properties of tea tree oil, which has potential antibacterial activity through disruption of bacterial membranes.2 Terpin-4-ol is the component of tea tree oil that is thought to exhibit the anti-microbial activity.3
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Tea tree oil has also been shown to have antibacterial activity against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). One studied compared treatment with mupirocin 2% nasal ointment, chlorhexidine 4% soap and silver sulfadiazine 1% cream versus a tea tree oil regimen that included a tea tree 10% cream and tea tree 5% body wash. There was no significant difference in efficacy between the two programs and both were shown to be effective against MRSA.4 Tea tree containing products can be recommend to patients as adjunct treatments in MRSA therapy.
Studies are available that show promising application for various dermatologic infections such as bacterial and fungal conditions and molluscum as well as inflammatory conditions such as acne. A common “home remedy” patients will often ask about is whether or not there is a role for tea tree oil in treating nail fungus. Tea tree oil has been shown to have activity against dermatophytes, in vitro.5 And, in some studies, it has been shown to be clinically effective in treating onychomycosis and interdigital tinea pedis as compared to placebo.6, 7
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Topical tea tree oil has also been looked at for application in acne therapy.
In one study, topical tea tree oil was shown to be superior to placebo in acne treatment.8 Another study compared tea tree oil with benzoyl peroxide and found them to be similarly effective, but tea tree oil was better tolerated by acne patients.9
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It is often hard to identify the concentration and purity of tea tree oil in over-the-counter products so caution should be used in solely relying on these products for bacterial eradication. In addition, is important to counsel patients that tea tree oil can be very irritating and a source of allergic contact dermatitis.10 It is thought that 1,8-cineole is likely the compound in tea tree oil that causes dermatitis. Because tea tree oil may have an irritant effect it is also worth considering for the treatment of molluscum contagiosum.11
Patients should be counseled to use tea tree with caution given the rate of irritant and contact dermatitis. In addition, it should be used with caution in children and pregnant or breastfeeding women and tea tree oil is not for oral ingestion as oral poisoning in children and adults has been observed.3
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