Why Aborigines were so fascinated with Tea Tree Oil?

For hundreds of year, the Bundjalung Aborigines of Northeast Australia used Melaleuca Tea Tree leaves as an antiseptic. They were nomads and moving light was was essential, but tea tree leaves were important enough for Aborigines to carry with them in case none was available in any new area.

The oily leaves of the Tea Tree were rubbed on wounds, scrapes and insect bites. In more serious cases, the leave were ground into a paste and applied as a dressing. In this state, it also proved useful as a bug repellent. They also inhaled crushed leaves as a treatment for coughs and colds. (Tea Tree: wikipedia.org)

Since Tea Trees prefer wet areas, pools of water would sometimes fill with oil dripping off the leaves and Aborigines used these as medicinal baths. The tree received its name from Captain Cook who in 1770 came across a stand of trees growing in swamp. After native Aborigines showed him how to make a spicy tea by boiling the leaves, it was promptly named Tea Tree. (It is also called Melaleuca.)

Though there are a couple hundred of varieties of Tea Tree, the Melaleuca Alternifolia is generally considered the most potent.

Antiseptic properties of Tea Tree

The powerful antiseptic properties of Tea Tree first came to light in 1925 when Australian chemist Dr. A.R.Penfold ran tests on Tea Tree oil (TTO) and declared it 12 times more powerful than antiseptic in use at the time – Carbonic Acid.

A report in the 1930 Medical Journal of Australia discussed how TTO penetrated wounds and loosened dirt and gravel. It read:

“Dirty wounds such as are frequently seen as the result of street accidents, may be washed or syringed with a 10% watery solution; the solvent properties will loosen and bring up the dirt which is usually ground in …. healing will readily take place.”

A second article in the same journal six years later stated the oil cured diabetic gangrene and in 1937 another article added when TTO mixed with blood, its antiseptic qualities increased by an additional 10%.

During World War II, Tea Tree oil was standard issue in first-aid kits for Australian soldiers fighting in tropical zones. Because it was a deterrent to infection and healer of wounds, bites, and numerous skin ailments such as rashes and fungal conditions, the army issued bottle of Melaleuca oil was dubbed “the medicine kit in a bottle.” When the demand outstripped supply, the Australian army moved to synthetic antiseptics.

After the war, Melaleuca oil dropped from sight as medicine — enamored with a new wave of medical break throughs — moved sharply towards synthetic antiseptics.

Modern studies on Tea Tree Oil

It wasn’t until the early 70s that a general revival in natural products created a renewed interest in the antiseptic properties of Melaleuca oil.  This spawned a number of studies on Tea Tree oil and particularly its antiseptic properties.

An article in the April 1972 issue of Current Podiatry reported when TTO was used on 60 patients suffering with a variety of foot problems – athlete’s foot, bunions, corn, callouses, skin peeling/cracking, bromhidrosis (smelly feet) and fungal infections – 58 patients saw their condition improve or completely cured by the oil. 38 cases rated the improvement as excellent.

According to Dr. .Christine Horner in her article Tea Tree Oil: Nature’s Natural Antiseptic, a number of studies confirmed the effectiveness of TTO in treating common ailments:

  • A 1999 study conducted by University of California San Francisco using a blind test found TTO a credible treatment of toenail fungus called onychomycosis curing nearly 80% of the cases.
  • In 2001, the Journal of Chemotherapy reported tea tree oil was an effective topical treatment for skin and mucous fungal infections.

Carson, Hammer and Riley report on Melaleuca oil

In their article published in Clinical Microbiology (June 2006), authors C. F. Carson, K.A. Hammer and T.V. Riley reviewed numerous studies on TTO. As a result of their work, they concluded TTO showed a broad range effectiveness against bacteria, fungal, virus and protozoal.

In fact, some scientists are studying TTO as a possible agent in the fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria plaguing hospitals such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. Using a vaporized form of Tea Tree oil to sterilize rooms, equipment and furniture, one hospital reported a noticeable reduction in infections as a result. However, more study is needed.

In their review of modern research, the trio discovered – aside from its antiseptic qualities – Tea Tree oil showed promise in treating other ailments. This included:

  • A potential treatment for Acne – without the side effects common with many other products such as dry skin.
  • An aid in oral hygiene. It not only killed oral floral but kept bacteria counts down two weeks after treatment had stopped. Evidence also showed it may reduce compounds associated with halitosis.
  • A possible anti-inflammatory agent as suggested by numerous studies.

What makes Tea Tree Oil work?

The two key ingredients in Tea Tree oil are terpinen-4-ol and cineole.

Terpinen-4-ol is the key ingredient in TTO. This bacterial killing agent gives Melaleuca oil its antiseptic power. The higher concentration, the more antiseptic power it delivers.

Cineole provides Melaleuca oil’s penetrating power, enabling it to penetrate tissue to kill fungus and bacteria. The amount of cineole in the oil is regulated as it is considered potentially abrasive to the skin. (Recent studies suggest this may not in fact be the case.) It is this unique quality of TTO that prevents it from being delivered in plastic containers as it will penetrate the lining.

There is a curious inverse relationship between these two ingredients. In order for there to be more terpinen-4-ol there will be less cineole.

Though these are the two main ingredients, an analysis of Melaleuca oil uncovered over 100 other compounds, some found in no other natural substance such as viridiflorene (1%) and  B-terpineol (0.24%) as reported by G. Sword and G.L.K. Hunter in their article published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry/

Many of these other compounds — a-terpinol, a-pinene, and linalool — contain significant antiseptic qualities. But according to Carson and his team all 100 TTO compounds have antibacterial capabilities to varying degrees. These multiple antiseptic compounds make it difficult for bacteria to build up a resistance to TTO.

Some believe this unique blending of compounds is the secret behind Melaleuca’s healing capability, by working together their healing properties extend beyond the ability of a single compound. This complexity also makes it nearly impossible for the oil to be manufactured synthetically.

Melaleuca’s Melaleuca Oil

Melaleuca oil is not a cure all for every ailment, but may be natural solution to dealing with a variety of common everyday cuts, insect bites and scrapes.

Melaleuca Inc has based many of its products on tea tree oil from antiseptics, to dental hygiene, to cleaning solutions.

With increasing demand for Melaleuca oil, the Australian Standards Association reduced the amount of terpinen-4-ol required by producers exporting TTO to a minimum of 30% terpinen-4-ol and a maximum of 15% Cineole. Though this increased the amount of oil that could be exported, it also allowed for a weakening of the Melaleuca oil.

However, Melaleuca Inc has made the purposeful decision to maintain a higher standard for its Melaleuca products. For medicinal purposes, its Tea Tree Oil has a minimum of 36% terpinen 4-ol..

There are three products that may be of interest: