There has been a great deal of interest over the past few years in "natural" treatments for skin conditions. My patients often ask me about "alternative" treatments for acne, and many have tried tea tree oil prior to coming in to see me. Does tea tree oil work in treating acne? I'd like to review our current scientific understanding of this issue.
Tea tree oil is an essential oil derived from the Australian Melaleuca alternifolia plant. It has antibacterial properties, and its efficacy in the treatment of acne is thought to be due to its effects on p.acnes, the bacteria that plays a role in the development of acne blemishes. Tea tree oil is found in various concentrations in a number of over-the-counter products, including washes, gels, oils, lotions, toners and masks.
A few small studies have evaluated whether or not tea tree oil is helpful in treating acne. None of these studies is considered to be of high quality, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions regarding this question. Nonetheless, a few of the studies have shown some benefit in individuals with mild to moderate acne, and this treatment can be considered as an alternative or adjunct to more traditional acne treatments in those whose acne is not severe.
A study comparing a 5% tea tree oil product to a placebo (gel without any active ingredients), found that the gel containing the tea tree oil was superior after 3 months of use (Enshaieh 2007). A second study which compared a 5% tea tree oil to 5% benzoyl peroxide (an effective acne treatment found in over-the-counter and prescription products), found that both treatments were effective, although the benzoyl peroxide product was more effective in reducing the number of inflamed pimples (Bassett 1990). In the latter study, those using the tea tree oil product were less likely to develop skin irritation than were study participants using benzoyl peroxide.
It should be noted that tea tree oil is not without side effects. It can be irritating to the skin and is a known cause of allergic reactions known as allergic contact dermatitis. Along with lavender oil, there have been reports of boys developing gynecomastia (breast enlargement) when using tea tree oil, suggesting that it may have hormone-like properties. Finally, because of a lack of safety data, tea tree should not be used by pregnant or nursing women.
What is the bottom line?
- Products containing 5% (or more) of tea tree oil may be helpful in treating mild to moderate acne, but further research needs to be done in order to establish whether it is effective.
- Tea tree oil does not appear to be as effective as benzoyl peroxide, but may be less irritating.
- Tea tree oil can cause skin irritation as well allergic reactions; if you develop a rash while using a tea tree oil-containing product, discontinue its use and seek the advice of a dermatologist.
- Overall, we have much better and more plentiful scientific evidence supporting conventional acne treatments such as benzoyl peroxide and retinoids in the treatment of acne.
- If you have severe acne, or acne that is causing scarring, see a dermatologist for advice sooner rather than later. Over-the-counter products, including those that contain tea tree oil, are usually not sufficient for cystic or scarring acne.
Bassett IH, Pannowitz DL, Barnetson RS. A comparative study of tea-tree oil versus benzoyl peroxide in the treatment of acne. Med J Aust.1990;153(8):455-8
Enshaieh S, Jooya A, Siadat AH, Iraji F. The efficacy of 5% topical tea tree oil gel in mild to moderate acne vulgaris: a randomized, double-blind placebocontrolled study. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol 2007;73:22–5.
Hammer KA. Treatment of acne with tea tree oil (melaleuca) products: A review of efficacy, tolerability and potential modes of action. Int J Antimicrob Agents 2015; 45(2): 106-110.
Yadav N, Singh A, Chatterjee A, Belemkar S. Evaluation of efficacy and safety of Perfact face gel and Perfact face tablets in management of acne. Clin Exp Dematol Res 2011;2:118.
Yoo J, Park S, Hwang I, et al. A clinical study on the effect of a cream containing Ramulus mori extract and tea tree oil on acne vulgaris and aerobic skin flora. Korean J Dermatol, 41 (2003), pp. 1136–1141