Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/15/2020
If you struggle with acne, a “fix” can’t happen soon enough. But just like waiting for the lifecycle of a pimple — from a small spot to a bulging pus-volcano — finding a solution can seem futile.
Acne isn’t only physically uncomfortable, it can be psychologically troubling, too. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests it is linked to depression, anxiety, low self esteem, poor self image and loneliness, among other things. So finding something that eases the pain is important to your holistic health.
There are countless acne products on the market — moisturizers, cleansers, pads, liquids and pills — and trying to choose one can make your head spin. You may have heard of tea tree oil as one such solution.
We’ll get straight to the point: tea tree oil is one potentially effective way to treat acne without a prescription.
Tea tree oil comes from the tea tree, native to Australia and traditionally used by the Aboriginal people.
Tea tree has antiinflammatory and antibacterial properties.
Numerous studies have demonstrated tea tree oil (and products containing tea tree oil) to be effective in treating mild-to-moderate acne.
Tea tree oil is generally safe to use topically, though some irritation can occur. You should never swallow tea tree oil, and should only use it topically.
Tea tree oil, also known as melaleuca oil, comes from the tea tree, a plant native to Australia.
There, the leaves of the tea tree and their resulting oil have been traditionally been used by Aboriginal people. Production of the oil on a commercial basis began in the 1920s, and as legend has it, the oil later was included in all soldiers’ military kits precisely for its healing properties.
Reportedly, tea tree oil became so important to the people of Australia — and the military — that “bush cutters” who harvested the plant were exempt from serving in World War II.
The leaves of the tea tree are steamed to obtain the oil. That oil makes its way to shelves around the world, sold as an essential oil and an ingredient in hair, cosmetic, and medicinal products.
In fact, the global tea tree oil market by 2025 is expected to reach $59.5 million, according to some estimates.
Today, tea tree oil is used for many health and beauty purposes. It may contain antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, due in part to powerful components called terpenes.
These properties are the cause of tea tree oil’s possible benefits in the treatment of acne, athlete’s foot, dandruff, lice, nail fungus and more.
If you have acne, you don’t need a definition. You know it as the sometimes-painful, embarrassing and otherwise annoying condition that leaves you with pimples and even possibly scars.
But understanding what’s happening under your skin can help you understand potential treatments like tea tree oil.
Acne affects up to 95 percent of adolescents and 54 percent of men and women over the age of 25, according to the American Medical Association.
The likelihood that you’ll experience acne decreases with age, but that doesn’t mean middle-aged people don’t sometimes struggle with breakouts.
Pimples happen when pores — the tiny holes in your face — get clogged with oil (also known as sebum), hair, dead skin cells and bacteria.
They’re most common on the face and other oil-prone areas such as your chest, back, neck and shoulders.
There are several different kinds of pimples, including whiteheads, blackheads, papules, pustules, nodules, and the large painful cysts.
Healthcare professionals aren’t entirely sure what causes acne in some people and not others, but some things can increase the likelihood that you’ll suffer from the condition, including hormone fluctuations, certain medications, and genetics.
Several studies have shown positive results in the use of tea tree oil to treat acne.
In one study of 60 patients with mild to moderate acne who were treated with five percent topical tea tree oil, people treated with the oil experienced a significant improvement over those given a placebo, in terms of both their score on the acne severity index, as well as in total acne lesions.
Another single-blind study compared the efficacy of tea tree oil gel and benzoyl peroxide (a popular acne treatment medication).
A total of 124 people were given either a five percent concentration of tea tree oil gel or a five percent benzoyl peroxide solution. The researchers found that both treatments comparably reduced acne lesions (inflamed and non-inflamed).
However, they noticed that tea tree oil’s onset onset of action was slower than benzoyl peroxide’s, but also that the tea tree oil group experienced fewer side effects.
Another study tested a combination solution of propolis, tea tree oil and aloe vera to erythromycin (a popular acne treatment), and found that the combination of propolis, tea tree oil and aloe vera was similarly effective to erythromycin after both 15 and 30 days.
However, it’s important to remember this study holds less weight for tea tree oil because tea tree oil was one of three ingredients.
Nevertheless, study after study seems to show tea tree oil to be an effective acne treatment.
Further, the research indicates tea tree oil came with no serious side effects. While some study subjects experienced redness, itching and dryness after tea tree oil treatment, the effects were less pronounced than those experienced with the medications benzoyl peroxide and erythromycin.
Tea tree oil sold as an essential oil is safe for topical use. However, skin irritation can occur with such a potent formula.
If you want to opt for 100 percent tea tree oil, apply just a drop directly to your skin to test your sensitivity to it.
If you’d rather play it safe and use a diluted formula, there are products on the market designed for acne treatment that list tea tree oil as one ingredient.
Things like facial cleansing pads, sprays, spot treatments and creams are fairly easy to find and may be more gentle than applying the oil directly.
You have acne, you want it gone and you’re willing to try anything to make it happen. We’ve all been there.
Among the shelves of products, lines of blog copy, and sponsored posts galore, advertising for every cream, solution, vitamin or flavor-of-the-week acne “cure,” you’ll find people talking about tea tree oil.
Well, as it happens, there’s some research out there to back up tea tree oil’s purported acne treatment benefits.
If you’re this far into the article and think you might want to give tea tree oil a try, the good news is that as a topical essential oil, it’s generally safe for topical use — which means there’s likely no harm in giving it a shot.
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