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The growing tip of a plantation Melaleuca alternifolia
The benefits and potential of tea tree oil (distilled from plantations of Melaleuca alternifolia) have been recognised for more than 70 years. Pure Australian tea tree oil is a natural essential oil and natural antiseptic, world renowned for its purity and quality. Tea tree oil has recognised antiseptic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties.
Melaleuca is a combination of two Greek words: melas ("black") and leukos ("white"), in reference to the contrasting black trunk and young white stems or branches that are characteristic of many species in this genus. alternifolia is derived from Latin and means having alternate leaves (ie. leaves on one side of a stem join the stem at nodes that are between the leaf nodes on the other side).
This section explores in more depth some of the important activities that are undertaken to produce pure Australian tea tree oil.
Tea tree oil has been used as a traditional medicine for many years. The earliest publication in the 1920s described the use of tea tree oil as a topical germicidal product. Tea tree oil has been sold in the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and other European countries since the early 1930’s and there has been a consistent and long standing use of tea tree oil demonstrated since 1930 internationally and in the European Community.
The clinical use of tea tree oil is described in monographs published by the World Health Organisation, British Pharmacopoeia and The Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (Martindale) and ESCOP (2009).
In August 2007, RIRDC and ATTIA published a comprehensive dossier on the Safety and Effectiveness of Tea Tree Oil. To access a copy of this document please click on the link. Considerable research, much of it by the Tea Tree Oil Research Group at The University of Western Australia, has revealed tea tree oil to be effective as an antibacterial, antifungal, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory. RIRDC has funded the bulk of this research.
More recently, researchers, noting the early findings, conducted clinical trials to confirm the antibacterial activity, antifungal activity, antiviral activity and antiprotozoal activity under modern controlled clinical trial conditions. These human clinical trials have been published to show that tea tree oil is efficacious in:
• Clearance of MRSA
• Reduction of bacterial load
• Reduction of yeast and fungal infections
• Treatment of mild to moderate acne vulgaris
• Treatment of tinea pedis
• Treatment onychomycosis
• Treatment of furunculosis (boils)
• Treatment of viral infections including Herpes labialis (cold sores)
• Treatment of mild to moderate dandruff
• Prevention of head lice
• Relief of the symptoms associated with contact hypersensitivity reactions
• Relief of the symptoms of moderate to severe gingivitis
• Relief of the symptoms of fluconazole-refractory oropharyngeal candidiasis
• Relief of the symptoms of denture stomatitis
• Treatment of Ocular Demodex
More recently, a report released in July 2010 has highlighted the positive role tea tree oil (TTO) may play in the future in treating people with skin cancer.The identification of anti-cancer activity of TTO is an important step in the process to identify, test and implement effective treatments for skin cancer. More information is available here.
Undiluted tea tree oil has been reported to cause skin irritation in a small proportion of people. In one study, where 311 people were exposed to undiluted tea tree oil daily for 21 consecutive days, 5.5% experienced weak skin irritation reactions. However when exposed to a cream, ointment and gel containing concentrations of 25% or less of tea tree oil, no irritation occurred. It is likely that the irritation potential of tea tree oil may be related to the age of the oil, with aged oils (presumably containing higher levels of peroxides and degradation products such as ascaridol) displaying a greater incidence of irritation.
There have been some reported cases of sensitisation to tea tree oil after repeated exposure. This has typically manifested as skin inflammation or rash and occurs because the immune system has reacted to the presence of the tea tree oil. Ten separate human patch test studies involving almost 9400 people have focused on the sensitisation potential of tea tree oil. Patch tests are frequently used to determine whether a person is allergic to a particular substance. They involve applying the substance to a small part of the skin and observing whether the skin ‘breaks out’. In the patch test studies, an average of 1.6 per cent of people showed some allergic reaction to tea tree oil. It is known, however, that in several of the patch test studies degraded tea tree oil was used to test for sensitisation. Tea tree oil degrades when it is repeatedly exposed to air, light and high temperatures. When tea tree oil is degraded, peroxide levels increase – and degradation products can form, such as 1,2,4-trihydroxymenthane which has been shown to be a skin sensitiser. The incidence of sensitisation in the patch test studies may therefore be an overestimate due to peroxides and their degradation products in the oils tested.
Almost all adverse events to tea tree oil are minor and mostly limited to local irritation. There is some evidence that 100% tea tree oil can cause allergic reactions in some patients. The rate of allergic reactions reported in the literature in various patch testing studies ranges between 0.6% and 2.4% with a mean of 1.6%.
The incidence and strength of the reactions is generally higher with oxidised tea tree oil samples. For this reason, proper storage and handling of tea tree oil and its formulated products should be a priority to avoid the development of the by-products of oxidation as these have been demonstrated to markedly increase the risk of skin irritation and sensitisation in sensitive individuals. This is why all ATTIA members subscribe to the Code of Practice for safe, effective production and storage of tea tree oil at all times.
Clinical evidence demonstrates that tea tree oil has broad spectrum antimicrobial activity with little evidence for inducing tolerance and resistance. Products containing tea tree oil are a useful addition to the range of skin hygiene and protection products. This type of product has proven efficacy with a known safety profile with a long history of traditional use.
"The legendary Princess Eelemani of the Bundjalung people was the Johnny Appleseed of tea tree oil. In the legend of Eelemani we learn of a beautiful princess who has to leave her true lover and travel through the bushland of coastal New South Wales. The journey was long and the forest trail was unknown to Eelemani. She was concerned that the return to her loved one and family would be difficult. Eelemani was no ordinary princess and so she spoke to the Gods of the earth and planets and was rewarded with special seeds that were to be sown along the trails.
As Eelemani walked through the forests, the bell birds called reassuringly and willie wagtails followed protectively through their territory. The special seeds were scattered on the moist, fertile forest soil. Falling to the ground, they grew roots and shoots and flew towards the sunlight. So remarkable were these trees that their beautiful white paper bark stood out from all the other trees. At night the polished sheen reflected the light of the moon showing the trail. Eelemani felt so safe knowing that the Gods had given her such a powerful marker to protect her on her journey.
And so the trees of Eelemani flourished and over the aeons of time the Bundjalung people came to learn of the magical properties: Just as the trees had protected Eelemani, the leaves were found to protect against infection and skin ailments.
It is difficult to know the truth of the story that Banks, the Endeavour botanist brewed some tea from a 'tea like' plant and hence created 'Australian Tea Tree'. Certainly the story of Eelemani is more credible - especially if you have tasted tea made from either Leptospermum or Melaleuca spp."
The indigenous Bundjalung people of eastern Australia are believed to have used tea trees as a traditional medicine for many years in a variety of ways including inhaling the oil from the crushed leaves to treat coughs and colds, applying the leaves on wounds as a poultice as well as brewing an infusion of the leaves to make a tea for treatment of sore throats or applying on the skin for minor wounds, abrasions and insect bites and stings. One of the areas where tea trees are grown in abundance today is called Bungawalbyn which translates to 'healing ground'. Captain James Cook named the tea tree because he observed the Bundjalung people of eastern Australia use the leaves to prepare a healing tea and it is reported that his men used the leaves first to make a tea and then to brew a type of beer!
Arthur Penfold in collaboration with FR Morrison published the first reports of pure tea tree oil’s antimicrobial activity in a series of papers in the 1920s and 1930s. In evaluating the antimicrobial activity of M. alternifolia, tea tree oil was rated as 11- 13 times more active than phenol while being milder and therefore safer for topical application. Shortly after the medicinal properties of the oil were first reported by Penfold, the tea tree industry was born. The oil was produced from natural bush stands of M. alternifolia with the plant material being harvested by hand and distilled on the spot in mobile wood-fired bush stills.
A bush still being filled with hand cut M alternifolia from a natural bush stand circa 1980
Tea tree oil became a household remedy in many Australian homes and was an essential part of every Australian soldier’s kit during World War II which is probably how the word was spread to the rest of the world on the properties and efficacy of the oil. Production ebbed in the 1950’s and early 1960’s as demand for the oil declined due both to the development of antibiotics and the waning image of natural products as the post WWII boom took off. Interest in the oil was rekindled in the late 1960’s early 1970’s as part of the general renaissance of the general interest in natural products that accompanied the baby boomer generation as they searched for the meaning of life.
The first commercial plantations were established in the 1970’s and 1980’s which led to the establishment of the first crude mechanical harvesting devices and forerunners of the larger, static distillation plants which have evolved to produce today’s consistent, high quality, 100% pure Australian tea tree oil.
Page last updated: 28 Jul 2010