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Could Tea Tree Oil Be the Acne-Fighting Ingredient of Your Dreams?

This oil has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, but some find it irritates their skin

person putting tea tree oil on face in mirror

“I think it’s fair to say I’ve seen lots of patients use tea tree oil for a variety of skin issues. It’s a natural remedy that is known to help,” says family physician Simon Hodes, MB ChB.

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But is acne one of them? According to Dr. Hodes, the answer to that question is going to vary from person to person.

What is tea tree oil?

Tea tree oil (or melaleuca oil) is an essential oil generated by steaming the leaves of the Australian Tea Tree. It’s known for its strong — and to many, pleasing — camphor-like smell. In addition to being used in aromatherapy, tea tree oil has been a traditional herbal remedy for a wide range of conditions, including:

  • Dandruff.
  • Eczema.
  • Lice.
  • Scabies.
  • Athlete’s foot.
  • Insect bites.
  • Nail fungus.
  • Fungal and bacterial skin infections.

Tea tree oil is also a common natural treatment used for acne. “Lots of products are derived from the natural world. Substances like tea tree oil have been used by communities and cultures for hundreds or thousands of years with good effect and minimal harm,” Dr. Hodes says.

The benefits of using tea tree oil on acne

What is it about tea tree oil (besides the nose-tingling smell) that makes it so popular?

Dr. Hodes says that tea tree oil has both anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, which makes it a good choice for treating acne-prone skin. In fact, a 1990 study compared 5% tea tree oil to 5% benzoyl peroxide. The researchers found that — while the benzoyl peroxide worked faster — they ultimately both made an impact. Notably, tea tree oil caused fewer side effects. “However,” Dr. Hodes notes, “the trial data is patchy with low numbers of patients. There’s no financial incentive for large-scale research.”

Do you need to dilute the tea tree oil?

It’s very important that the tea tree oil you use on your face is diluted. 100% tea tree oil on its own can cause issues like dryness, blistering and rashes.

If you’re diluting the tea tree oil yourself, you should add approximately 12 drops of carrier oil (like coconut, jojoba, or argan oil — whatever works best for your skin) for every one to two drops of tea tree oil. If you’d rather the tea tree oil have the consistency of a toner, you can use witch hazel instead.

If all of that sounds like too much work, there are plenty of skin care products out there that do the mixing for you.

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Patch testing and ‘left-right’ trials

When it comes to skin care, it’s always a good idea to be cautious about introducing new ingredients. The skin on your face is especially sensitive — and if you’re struggling with acne, it may also be damaged. That’s why it‘s best to do a patch test on your inner forearm before integrating tea tree oil into your daily regimen.

But how can you tell if the tea tree oil is working? Dr. Hodes recommends doing what’s called a left-right trial. “You’ve got two sides to your body,” he says. “So, if you’re not sure if the product’s helping, just try using it on one side of your face. If it works after a few weeks, you know it’s helping.” This technique is especially helpful for people who are using a number of different products on their face, or also taking oral medications to treat their skin.

How to use tea tree oil on acne

Once you’ve diluted and patch-tested your tea tree oil, using it is pretty easy:

  1. Start by washing your face with your cleanser of choice and gently patting dry with a towel.
  2. The next step depends on whether you’re using tea tree oil for acne spot treatment or prevention. If you’re using tea tree oil as a spot treatment, apply the oil to your blemishes with a cotton round. If you’re using the product to prevent acne, spread the product evenly on your face with a cotton round, being careful to avoid your eyes and lips.
  3. Once the oil has had a chance to soak into your skin, follow it up with your moisturizer.

How often should you apply it?

When using tea tree oil for acne, it’s best to use it every day, preferably twice a day. Keep in mind that it can take up to 12 weeks to see improvement in your skin. “This is the same for most topical acne treatments,” says Dr Hodes. “You have to be patient with the skin.” Keep using it to see continued results.

If after 12 weeks, you’re not noticing any improvement in your acne, it’s probably time to see a healthcare provider or — if you have one — your dermatologist.

Side effects

One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to any kind of skin care — and tea tree oil is no exception.

“For some people, tea tree oil may irritate the skin, so I think trying it or not has to be an individual choice,” Dr. Hodes states. “If it works for you, that’s great. And if it doesn’t, or if it makes your skin worse, then ease off using it.”

Like many other acne-busting ingredients, tea tree oil can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so make sure you’re using a good quality sunscreen.

It’s also possible to be allergic to tea tree oil. If you notice symptoms like itching, irritation, redness or swelling where you applied the product, stop using it immediately.

Precautions

Tea tree oil has a lot going for it, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely harmless.

Tea tree oil is safe to apply to the skin, but it’s toxic if you ingest it. If you have pets or children in your home, make sure you keep your tea tree oil out of reach, like other medicines.

If you’re already using active ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid or retinol as part of your skin care routine, adding tea tree oil to the mix may be irritating. That said, there are many acne-fighting products on the market that combine these ingredients in a safe and effective way.

It’s also important to know what you’re buying. Tea tree oil isn’t regulated like a medicine, so there can be wide variations in product quality and ingredients. “You need to have a trusted manufacturer,” Dr. Hodes says, adding, “Look at the brand, cost, recommendations and reviews online — see what others recommend.”

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He continues, “It’s also important to look at the concentration and see what other ingredients are in the bottle because it might be that one of the other additives doesn’t suit your skin.”

The bottom line

Tea tree oil is a natural product with anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. It’s been around for a long time and is widely used. Many people find it beneficial and experience few or no side effects. If you struggle with acne, a diluted form of tea tree oil may be a valuable addition to your skin care routine. Just be sure to buy tea tree oil from a trusted manufacturer and do a patch test first, as some people are allergic and others find it irritates their skin.

If you aren’t seeing an improvement in your acne after about 12 weeks, consider seeing a healthcare provider, as you may need a stronger treatment.

And remember, tea tree oil is poisonous when ingested, so make sure you store it safely out of reach of pets and children.

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