Tea Tree Oil and Acne

If you’re looking for a natural way to treat your acne, tea tree oil may be a good choice—especially for those who cannot tolerate stronger medications like benzoyl peroxide. The tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) is native to Australia and New Zealand, and the leaves were used in teas by indigenous Australians to treat respiratory and skin infections. Topically tea tree oil has been used for historically for many different skin conditions—including acne.1

Evidence of Antimicrobial and Anti-Inflammatory Effects against Acne

Extracted from the leaves of the tea tree, studies have confirmed tea tree oil’s antibacterial activity against harmful microbes without damaging normal, healthy skin microbes. This includes inhibiting growth of the gram positive bacteria associated with acne—Propionibacterium acnes. In laboratory experiments it’s even been shown to kill Staphylococcus aureus and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and actively inhibits herpes simplex virus. Tea tree oil constituents also have anti-inflammatory properties.2

Clinical studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of tea tree oil in the fight against acne. One randomized clinical trial involving 124 patients with mild to moderate acne found that while not as effective as benzoyl peroxide, those treated with tea tree oil still experienced a significant reduction in acne with fewer reports of skin irritation.3


Topical use of tea tree oil is generally well-tolerated but may cause some skin irritation, including dry, itchy red skin. Although there is some clinical evidence that indicates topical tea tree oil may be safely used by pregnant or nursing women, there have been reports of estrogenic hormonal activity. For safety’s sake, tea tree oil is not recommended for pregnant and nursing women.2,4

How to Use

Tea tree oil can be found at any drugstore or natural supplement store, and should be applied sparingly on the afflicted area. Many anti-blemish products also count tea tree oil among their active ingredients. Try finding a formulation that contains jojoba oil and a concentration of 25-50% tea tree oil. Experts recommend jojoba oil because animal studies show that it has anti-inflammatory properties and is does not cause pimples.5

In clinical studies, creams and ointments containing 1-10% tea tree oil has been successfully used in dogs for a number of skin conditions, including pruritus.1

  1. Wynn, Susan G. and Fougère, Barbara. Veterinary herbal medicine. s.l.: Elsevier Health Sciences, 2007. ISBN 0323029981, 9780323029988.
  2. Therapeutic Research Faculty. Tea Tree Oil Full Monograph. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. [Online] 2011. [Cited: January 18, 201.] http://naturaldatabase.therapeuticresearch.com/nd/Search.aspx?cs=&s=ND&pt=100&id=113&ds=&name=TEA+TREE+OIL&searchid=24700147.
  3. Martin, K.W., Ernst, E. J. Antimicrob. Chemother. 51(2): Herbal medicines for treatment of bacterial infections: a review of controlled clinical trials. Oxford Journals. [Online] January 14, 2003. [Cited: January 18, 2011.] http://jac.oxfordjournals.org/content/51/2/241.long. DOI 10.1093/jac/dkg087.
  4. Wong, Cathy. Tea Tree Oil. About.com Alternative Medicine. [Online] September 20, 2007. [Cited: January 18, 2011.] http://altmedicine.about.com/od/herbsupplementguide/a/TeaTreeOil.htm.
  5. Yarnell, Eric and Abascal, Kathy. Alternative & Complementary Therapies: Herbal Medicine for Acne Vulgaris. Touro Institute. [Online] December 2006. [Cited: January 19, 2011.] http://touroinstitute.com/herbs%20and%20acne.pdf.
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