The Truth About Tea Tree Oil

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If you’re into “natural” products, chances are you’ve heard of tea tree oil. It’s used widely in topical products and shampoos. So, is it safe? Effective? Worth the money?

According to Holistic Online, tea tree oil has a “wide range of applications”:

Tea tree oil is active against all three categories of infectious organisms: bacteria, fungi and viruses.


Tea tree oil is a very powerful immuno-stimulant. It increases the immunity of the body against bacteria, fungi and viruses.

The immuno-stimulant action of Ti-tree is perhaps its most important property. This property is very useful in the treatment of debilitating illnesses such as glandular fever, and for people who repeatedly succumb to infections or who are very slow to recover from any illness. It is one of the most important oils for helping people who are HIV positive. (

Not every website I’ve looked at makes such claims, but these are the kinds of claims that could lead to tragedy, so I’m going to deal with them. Okay, here goes.

Preliminary evidence shows that tea tree oil does have antiseptic/disinfectant uses, for topical use only. It may be used to treat wounds involving bacterial infections such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). It may also be used to treat athlete’s foot, nail fungus, dandruff and acne.

As far as being antiviral, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that studies show effectiveness at killing the herpes virus; an abstract on their website regards treatment with tea tree oil in this capacity as “promising.” Another abstract from the NIH says that it was found to be effective at stopping the influenza virus.  A health page from the University of Maryland Medical Center says that tea tree oil can aid in the removal of warts in conjunction with banana peel or raw garlic patch. Warts are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) and there is no available evidence that tea tree oil can be used as a treatment for that, or for any other viruses other than the aforementioned. It is very important to note that you cannot take tea tree oil internally! If you want to kill any viruses with this stuff, you’ll need to apply it to the broken area of the skin where the virus has made its way. You’ll use it as an antiseptic. It’s also important to note that when using antiseptics you should do some research first, particularly for any that are deemed natural; not every treatment kills every pathogen.

How about boosting the immune system? Harvard Health Publications has this to say about it:

Many products on store shelves claim to boost or support immunity. But the concept of boosting immunity actually makes little sense scientifically. In fact, boosting the number of cells in your body — immune cells or others — is not necessarily a good thing. For example, athletes who engage in “blood doping” — pumping blood into their systems to boost their number of blood cells and enhance their performance — run the risk of strokes.

Attempting to boost the cells of the immune system is especially complicated because there are so many different kinds of cells in the immune system that respond to so many different microbes in so many ways. Which cells should you boost, and to what number? So far, scientists do not know the answer. What is known is that the body is continually generating immune cells. Certainly it produces many more lymphocytes than it can possibly use. The extra cells remove themselves through a natural process of cell death called apoptosis — some before they see any action, some after the battle is won. No one knows how many cells or what the best mix of cells the immune system needs to function at its optimum level. (

So be especially careful when you’re thinking about trying to boost your immune system–a lot of what’s out there isn’t much more than an old wives’ tale. If your lifestyle is poor (bad diet, no exercise, smoking, etc.) then your immune system may be weakened, but developing better habits will bring it back. If your immune system is compromised, that is something you should work with your doctor on, and, as always, do some research!

And, again, tea tree oil should only be used externally–I’m not sure how a topical application of anything could boost your immune system. This evidence behind this claim is anecdotal at best.

So there. Other websites make less extravagant claims about tea tree oil, and if you are inclined to try them, they might work out for you. Some examples:

  • Hand sanitizer
  • Kitchen/bathroom disinfectant
  • Deodorizer
  • Homemade deodorant
  • Fighting mildew and mold
  • Clean your washing machine
  • Freshen your clothes in the dryer

A warning I’ve found from several sources is that you shouldn’t use oxidized tea tree oil–that is, tea tree oil that has been exposed to air for too long. It is known to cause allergic reactions.

If you’re inclined to use tea tree oil, there are benefits it is shown to have, but more research so far isn’t exactly conclusive. Be sure to do your research when using any alternative medicine, and as always, consult your doctor first!

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