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The naturally-derived antiseptic can help with acne, bug bites and fungal infections—so long as you take the time to make a well-informed purchase.
Australia, that great, wild land down under, is famous for its unique animals, rugged Outback, iconic Sydney Opera House and the world’s largest coral reef. But it’s also home to many medicinal plants including Melaleuca alternifolia, a small, scrubby tree with thin leaves that are more commonly known as a tea tree. Called a first-aid kit in a bottle, tea tree oil can be used topically to treat cuts, bug bites, acne, lice, and fungal infections, or can be mixed with water to make an effective household cleaner. But outside of Australia, the oil sometimes gets a bad rap for its strong smell and reputation as a skin irritant. Here’s what you need to know about tea tree oil and how to buy a product that will help, not harm.
Melaleuca alternifolia: The beginning
Tea trees are native to the swampy areas of Queensland and New South Wales, and the oil from the Melaleuca alternifolia species became a popular antiseptic and cure-all in the 1920s. It dropped off the world’s radar after the invention of synthetic drugs such as penicillin, but then experienced a resurgence in the 1970s partially thanks to Eric White, founder of tea tree brand Thursday Plantation, when he learned about its medicinal benefits. White went on to research and cultivate seeds from the bush to understand the genetic properties of the plants, and his stepson, Christopher Dean, went on to develop Thursday Plantation as a commercial brand.
The makings of an effective tea tree oil
Melaleuca alternifolia has two main active ingredients: cineole and terpinen-4-ol. For a product that will effectively treat skin concerns, terpinen-4-ol levels need to be high. In Australia, where tea tree oil regulations are strict, there must be a minimum of 40-percent terpinen-4-ol. If you find a bottle of oil for sale that has less than 35 percent listed on the label, that means the product is below international standards.
The tea tree oil boom
The market for tea tree oil exploded in the early 1990s due to a surge in interest in naturally-derived alternatives to antibiotics, synthetic skin care and even chemical cleaning products. “Everyone was getting sick of antibiotics and drugs and there was a real push, particularly in Australia, for people to go back to natural,” says Reece Ryan, Thursday Plantation’s head of operations. Tea tree production began to spread around the world—from Africa to Asia—and adulteration (meaning dilution to create a cheaper product) became a problem.
The demand for tea tree oil persists, but more than half the tea tree oil on Canadian shelves is adulterated because regulation is so lax, and that can have consequences for smell (the oils can stink of camphor), efficacy and safety. “There has been a massive increase in reported instances of skin irritation and contact dermatitis that have been attributed to tea tree oil,” says Tony Larkman, CEO of the Australian Tea Tree Industry Association (ATTIA). “We think a lot of the reporting has been driven and exacerbated by adulteration.” ATTIA has tested hundreds of tea tree oil samples from around the world and found everything from pesticides and phthalates to heavy metals bottled in the tea tree oil that sits on store shelves.
So how can you make sure you’re choosing a quality product and how can you keep it that way?
• Choose tea tree oil that is produced in a country that has strict regulations, like Australia
• Make sure the bottle has a Natural Product Number (NPN), which means it has been given a product licence from Health Canada and can be classified as an antiseptic .
• Pick an oil that is between clear and pale yellow. An orange hue means the oil has oxidized, and an oxidized oil is less effective and may even irritate the skin.
• Keep your tea tree oil in a cool, dark place and only purchase it in well-sealed bottles made of dark glass (to protect against light and prevent the leaching of chemicals that can sometimes happen with plastics).
• Don’t keep your tea tree oil for longer than 6 months once it’s open, and 12 months if it’s sealed.
Whether you’re looking for a naturally-derived household cleaner, want to treat a fungal infection without antibiotics or need a safe acne treatment, tea tree oil might just be your new best friend—provided you take the steps to purchase the real stuff.