Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/1/2021
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 was traditionally used by the Aboriginal people.
Tea tree oil has anti-inflammatory 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 alternifolia oil, comes from the tea tree, a plant native to Australia, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
There, the leaves of the tea tree and their resulting oil have traditionally been used by Aboriginal people.
According to a study published in the journal, Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 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.
However, we should place emphasis on the word legend, as no evidence to actually corroborate these accounts has ever been identified.
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, Business Wire says that the global tea tree oil market by 2025 is expected to reach $59.5 million.
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.
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, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
They’re most common on the face and other oil-prone areas such as your chest, back, neck and shoulders.
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 published in the Indian Journal of Dermatology, 60 patients with mild to moderate acne were treated with either a 5% concentration of topical tea tree oil or given a placebo.
At the end of the 45-day study, the people in the tea tree oil group (n=30) saw 3.55 times greater improvement of total acne lesions counting (TLC) and 5.75 times greater improvement according to the acne severity index (ASI) than those in the placebo group (n=30).
In another study, a total of 124 people with acne-prone skin 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 of action was slower than benzoyl peroxide, but also that the tea tree oil group experienced fewer side effects.
Another small study of 60 people published in the journal Clinical Pharmacology: Advances and Applications, 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 it 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.
The study found that after regular use of a mixture of tea tree oil and cosmetic sunscreen, participants showed improvement in oiliness and skin hydration.
Dry skin and itchy skin conditions such as eczema and scalp and hair health may also see beneficial results, according to the Archives of Dermatological Research. Results from the study showed that tea tree oil was better at reducing itchy skin symptoms than other topical agents it was compared against.
It even has antifungal, antimicrobial, antiseptic and antibacterial properties, so it can help with athlete's foot and with increasing the speed of healing minor cuts, according to an study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine and a study published in the The Australasian Journal of Dermatology.
The first study revealed that all but one participant saw a reduction in healing time when their minor wounds were treated with tea tree oil.
The second study concluded that daily application of tea tree oil to symptoms of athlete’s foot could reduce the causing fungus in a matter of weeks.
Tea tree oil sold as an essential oil is safe for topical use. However, skin irritation can occur with potent formulas, so it is important to perform a patch test no matter what skin type you have, but especially if you have sensitive skin.
If you want to opt for 100 percent pure tea tree oil, apply just a drop directly to your skin to test your sensitivity to it. Alternatively, you can try diluting the formula by adding a few drops of tea tree oil into a carrier oil, such as olive oil or coconut oil, to dilute the formula.
If you’d rather play it safe and use a diluted formula, there are over the counter 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 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.