Tea tree essential oil is a potent topical antiseptic which is known as a anti-fungal, antiviral and antibacterial aid. The indigenous people of Australia relied on the medicinal properties of the leaves of these native trees, most commonly Melaleuca alternifolia, for a myriad of uses. Unlike other herbal treatments, tea tree oil (TTO) retained popularity through the centuries. In 1923,  a prominent Australian chemist, Dr. A.R. Penfold, published a study of the leaves of the tea tree. Dr Penfold discovered their essential oils to be thirteen times stronger than the most common antiseptic, carbolic acid. In World War II, it was the most effective treatment for trench foot which has maimed thousands in World War I.

TTO, like other herbal medicine, has a myriad of chemical constituents but terpinen-4-ol have made most of the headlines. Terpinen-4-ol has strong antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.  Terpinen-4-ol is not restricted to Melaleuca tree species, it also produced by other herbs such as nutmeg and juniper. These plants are noted for their resistance to rot. Norwegian farmers selected juniper wood for their fence posts as it held up the longest in their wet environment. As a terpene, this volatile oil is acknowledged as an antibiotic. It has a strong 5 carbon bond which is chemically resilient against bacteria. Its prevents the bacteria from reproducing so that it doesn’t live past one short generation.

This brick wall effect against infection is similar to how TTO inhibits fungi and viruses from duplicating. Pairing with proper and consistent hygiene practices to take the existing infections out of the tissue is the trick to making the healing process work. Much still needs to be discovered about terpinen-4-ol and its impressive record as an effective antiseptic. As always, there is more to health than just preventing bacteria, viruses and fungi from duplicating.

Terpinen-4-ol is also useful due to it’s anti-inflammatory effect on injured tissue. At concentrations as low as 0.125%, terpinen-4-ol stops the production of several inflammatory mediators which lead to pain. This property is helpful for healing tissue not just because it helps that patient become more comfortable but it decreases the interest of patients with infections to want to scratch at the infected tissue so that it has a chance to heal. This is why TTO is the subject of such scrutiny by the medical community for use with difficult to treat conditions which are exacerbated by scratching such as scabies or athlete’s foot.

Further Research

A review of applications of tea tree oil in dermatology

Terpinen-4-ol, the main component of the essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree oil), suppress inflammatory mediator production by activated human monocytes

Therapeutic potential of tea tree oil for scabies 

Antifungal properties of the components of melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree oil)