We’re stepping into spring (thank goodness!) but for most of us, windy days and dry air aren’t completely over. This weather is great for mid-afternoon naps, but these wintry days can wreak havoc on our skin, hair, and nails, making us look more like White Walkers than the Mother of Dragons. But what if there was an all-natural product that could could give you a Westerosi glow without having to spend hours in a spray-tan booth or makeup chair? Sound too good to be true? Well, hold on to your strobing brushes, because there may be such a product. What’s more, it’s fairly inexpensive and can be found in most health food stores. Intrigued? Try tea tree oil. The number of uses for tea tree oil will quickly make it a mainstay of your winter beauty routine.
Tea tree oil comes from Mela-what?
The name “tea tree” can actually refer to a whole group of common shrubs and flowering trees in the Melaleuca and Leptospermum families. Tea tree oil as most of us know it refers to an essential oil derived from Melaleuca alternifolia, an Australian tree in the myrtle family. According to the Australian Tea Tree Oil Industry Association, Melaleuca was used medicinally for centuries by the indigenous Bundjalung people. British explorer James Cook observed the Bundjalung drinking a tea made from the leaves of a Melaleuca tree and so named the plant “tea tree.” (Creative, huh?) Tea tree oil has consistently been a vital part of Australia’s economy. Fortunately, these days you don’t have to travel to Australia to purchase tea tree oil (though we’d appreciate the excuse). Essential oils are undoubtedly having a moment, and you can now find popular oils like tea tree, peppermint, and lemon in most grocery stores and pharmacies.
Tea Tree Oil You Can Trust
Before you buy any essential oil, though, make sure you follow a few guidelines to ensure you’re getting the best quality product. While you may be tempted by inexpensive prices, it’s best to avoid cheap essential oils. These cheaper oils may be diluted with water or contain other additives, dimishing their therapeutic qualities. Even though you may have to spend a few dollars more, it’s worth it to purchase a higher quality oil, because you’ll only need a drop or two for maximum efficacy. In addition, beware of sneaky advertising. If you see labels on tea tree oil like “therapeutic grade” or “all natural,” don’t be fooled. The product may indeed be all natural, but the essential oil industry is not closely regulated, so companies can set their own product standards (which may be less than stellar). Rebekah Epling, a West Virginia–based herbalist who makes her own skincare products, says her go-to brand of tea tree oil comes from Mountain Rose Herbs, an Oregon-based company committed to sustainably sourced products.
Using Tea Tree Oil: Safety First!
So, you’re likely wondering, how can I use this incredible oil? Glad you asked! “Tea tree oil has antibacterial and antifungal qualities, primarily from a type of oil it contains called terpene,” Epling tells HealthyWay. Terpene oils are both aromatic and extremely volatile, which is why tea tree oil in particular should never be ingested or applied to the skin undiluted under any circumstances. “Tea tree oil is most commonly used in aromatherapy, for household cleaning, and topically for issues such as acne, athlete’s foot, fungal infections of the nails, dandruff, dry scalp, and bug bites,” Epling explains. Although tea tree oil does have antibacterial and antifungal properties, it’s not a cure-all for every skin condition. Tea tree oil is a popular homeopathic remedy for skin problems like eczema and psoriasis, according to Tara Nayak, a naturopathic doctor based in Philadelphia, but it isn’t the best treatment option if you’re looking for a natural alternative to prescription treatment of these conditions. “I don’t typically recommend tea tree oil for eczema or psoriasis,” says Nayak. “In fact, rather than give something that kills bacteria in these cases, I tend to prescribe a probiotic instead to add beneficial bacteria to the skin.” If you do use tea tree oil for certain skin conditions, Nayak says, “Using a probiotic skin spray can also be beneficial after using tea tree to kill off bacterial or fungal skin issues, as it replenishes the healthy bacterial environment on the skin.” If you have eczema or psoriasis, check with your doctor before treating your skin with any homeopathic or natural remedy.
Dilute, Dilute, Dilute
Despite its name, tea tree oil is actually toxic if ingested, so it should only be applied topically. According to the Toxicology Data Network, if swallowed, tea tree oil can cause drowsiness, disorientation, and loss of muscle control. Yikes. If you use tea tree oil (or other essential oils at home), make sure that they’re kept on a high shelf or in a locked cabinet away from small children, who are most at risk for poisoning. You should always dilute tea tree oil before topical use. That’s because essential oils (tea tree oil included) are highly concentrated, so their effects are exceptionally potent. If you don’t dilute tea tree oil first, you could experience skin irritation or even an allergic reaction. Fortunately, diluting tea tree oil is easy, says Epling: “Simply blend a few drops with a carrier oil, such as coconut oil or jojoba oil or even water.”
Tea Tree Oil Uses
Now that we know what it is and how to use it safely, let’s get down to how to work tea tree oil into your routine. Whether you’re looking for at-home cures or beauty tips, these six uses for tea tree oil will make you an essential oil convert.
1. So Fresh and So Clean
Depending on how you use it, tea tree oil can be harsh on the skin. If your tea tree oil mixture is too strong, says Nayak, “it can kill off not only the bad but also the beneficial bacteria” that your skin needs. This can lead to dry, flaky skin and a higher sensitivity to ultraviolet (UV) rays. The more diluted tea tree oil is, the less harsh it will be on your skin, but no worries: You’ll still reap the antiseptic benefits. Nayak suggests consulting with a dermatologist before you incorporate tea tree oil in your skincare routine. If they give the all clear, it should be fine to use tea tree oil as a part of your beauty arsenal. “Tea tree oil does make a great facial cleanser,” says Epling, who makes her own face wash. “To make your own tea tree oil face wash, combine 1 tablespoon of activated charcoal, ½ cup of aloe vera extract gel (the clear kind you can purchase at any drugstore), ⅓ cup raw honey, and 2 tablespoons of either jojoba or sweet almond oil. Mix together and store in an airtight container such as soap dispenser.” This homemade face wash should be fine for daily use, but if you notice any skin irritation, scale back use to every other day or every couple of days.
2. Get Glowing Skin with Tea Tree Oil
Thought you left blotchy skin behind in your teens only to have it resurface in your thirties? You’re not alone, girl. Worry not! You can get rid of bumps and clogged pores by making your own detoxifying tea tree oil face mask. To make the mask, “mix about 3 tablespoons of a cosmetic grade clay such as bentonite, french green, or white kaolin clay, 3½ tablespoons of activated charcoal ([which] can be found at health food stores or online), about 5 drops of tea tree oil, and enough water to make a medium-thick paste,” says Epling. Leave the mask on your the skin for about 15 minutes and then rinse with lukewarm water. Although tea tree oil is soothing, Epling warns that your face may be red after you remove the mask because clay draws impurities to the surface of the skin. Make sure to treat your skin to a sweet moisturizer to calm any irritation you might feel after.
3. Zap Zits
According to a 1990 study conducted by the department of dermatology at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in New South Wales, Australia, tea tree oil was found to be just as effective as benzoyl peroxide at treating mild to moderate acne. The study found that although a 5 percent tea tree oil gel treatment did take a little longer to work than a 5 percent benzoyl gel, fewer overall side effects were seen in patients who used tea tree oil. To use tea tree oil as an acne spot treatment, dilute a couple of drops of tea tree oil with about 30 drops of witch hazel and swab on pimples with a cotton ball. Only dab the mixture on once per day. It’s tempting to try to clear zits fast, but overuse of tea tree oil can dry out your skin, ultimately causing more zits to pop up as your body produces more oils to combat dry skin.
4. Tea Tree Oil Cleans Your Tools
If you wear makeup, your brushes might be the culprit for any small breakouts you’ve experienced, especially if you don’t clean them regularly. Get bacteria and old makeup off your tools by cleaning your brushes regularly. Lucky for you, you don’t need to invest in a fancy brush-cleaning solution. To clean your makeup brushes, mix a few drops of tea tree oil, about a cup of hot water, and a drop of dish soap together. Swirl your brushes in the mixture, then gently rub the brush on a clean cloth. Repeat this process until your brush rubs clean against the cloth. To keep skin healthy, clean your brushes at least once a week.
5. Fight Flakes with Tea Tree Oil
No, not your flaky ex, which tea tree oil unfortunately can’t cure. We’re talking about dandruff. Dandruff has a variety of causes, including dry or oily skin (seriously), not shampooing often enough, or even fungal infections. A doctor can tell you what’s causing your dandruff, but if your pesky white flakes are being caused by a fungus, tea tree oil’s antiseptic properties make it ideal for fighting fungal dandruff. “You can replace dandruff shampoo, which typically contains many harsh chemicals, by adding it to a homemade shampoo recipe of your choosing or adding several drops to a gentle or natural shampoo,” says Epling.
6. The Fungus Among Us
“Tea tree oil is also an anti-inflammatory, so it calms down the irritated immune response to something like a foot fungus and takes down potential swelling,” Nayak says. “In using tea tree oil for fungal infections you can either make a powder with dried ground tea tree leaves (i.e., a foot powder) or put a few drops in water as a foot soak or oil as a liniment.” In addition to treating fungal foot infections, tea tree oil can be used to treat fungal nail infections. To treat a nail fungus with tea tree oil, mix a couple of drops of tea tree oil with the carrier oil of your choice in a dropper bottle (which makes the solution easier to apply to your nails). Place a drop at the cuticle and rub into your nail daily. But Nayak cautions that you should always visit a doctor if you think you have a fungal infection of any kind before self-treating with tea tree oil. “It’s of course important to rule out more serious issues when dealing with a suspected fungal skin infection. In immunocompromised patients—such as the very young or the elderly—a fungal skin infection has a higher risk of spreading and becoming systemic, which is a much more serious issue, requiring aggressive treatment.”