Tea Tree Oil for Acne

Pros, Cons, and How to Apply

Tea tree oil is often credited as being a natural treatment for acne because of its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects. Although a few small studies show that tea tree oil may have some acne-fighting abilities, the true effect tea tree oil has on acne is unclear.

Still, tea tree oil has anecdotal support and is probably still your best choice for a natural, alternative acne treatment remedy.

This article discusses what is known about tea tree oil's benefits for acne, its possible risks, and how to safely try tea tree oil to treat and reduce breakouts.

What Is Tea Tree Oil?

Tea tree oil is an essential oil obtained from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia plant, a woody shrub that's native to Australia. Its oil is thin, clear to yellow in color, with a striking camphorous, medicinal odor.

Tea tree oil is also known as:

  • Melaleuca oil
  • Ti tree oil

Possible Acne Benefits of Tea Tree Oil

Tea tree is believed to tame inflammation and help kill Propioni acnes bacteria, which are responsible for acne breakouts.

The actual effect tea tree oil has on acne is still unclear, however. This is largely because only a few small studies on this have been done, according to a 2015 Cochrane research review.

The one notable study cited by that review was a 2007 study that found that 5% tea tree oil improved mild to moderate acne when compared to a placebo, or sham treatment. Researchers found that those who treated their acne with tea tree gel had a 3.55-fold reduction in the number of pimples and a 5.75-fold decrease in pimple severity.

In another small study, participants with acne were asked to apply tea tree oil products to their face two times a day for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, researchers concluded that using tea tree oil products had significantly improved mild to moderate acne. They also found that the treatments were well tolerated.

tea tree oil
 Verywell / Gary Ferster

Drawbacks and Side Effects

As exciting as some of the initial information may seem, tea tree oil isn't a magic cure for acne. It's biggest drawback is that it's simply not as effective as some of the other acne treatment medications available today.

Although tea tree oil shows promise as an antimicrobial, acne isn't caused solely by bacteria. There are many factors that cause acne breakouts. One is the abnormal desquamation process that occurs in acne-prone skin. Another is the over-active sebaceous glands. Tea tree oil doesn't do anything to treat these factors.

Also, remember that natural treatments aren't completely benign. Tea tree oil can irritate the skin, especially the delicate skin on the face. Some people who used tea tree oil develop contact dermatitis—a raised, itchy rash. Common symptoms of contact dermatitis include:

  • Skin that is red, sore, or inflamed
  • Blisters
  • Burning
  • Dry, cracked skin

Tea tree oil can also be toxic if swallowed. If ingested, it can lead to serious symptoms such as confusion, ataxia (loss of coordination in the body), breathing problems, and coma. It's also unclear if tea tree oil is safe to use while pregnant or breastfeeding.

How to Use Tea Tree Oil For Acne

Tea tree products are probably best used as spot treatments for the occasional pimple, rather than as a sole treatment for the prevention of acne.

To use tea tree oil to treat acne:

  1. Opt for a therapeutic grade tea tree oil from a reputable company.
  2. Dilute the oil according to the manufacturer's instructions. Undiluted tea tree oil should not be applied directly to the skin, as this may cause irritation. Most aromatherapists recommend diluting tea tree oil in a carrier like coconut oil or sweet almond oil. 
  3. Apply a small amount of the diluted oil to clean, dry skin, focusing on areas that are acne-prone.
  4. Remove any excess oil from your skin using a clean towel. This can prevent the oil from clogging your pores and worsening your acne.
  5. Like most topical acne treatments, it's recommended that you apply the oil daily for best results.

Tea tree essential oil can be purchased at any natural food store.

There are also skincare products that contain tea tree oil available in natural food stores and even some drugstores. If you go this route, make sure that tea tree oil is listed as an active ingredient on the product label.

Other Uses for Tea Tree Oil

Historically, tea tree oil has been used for skin infections, fungal infections, ulcerations and other wounds.

Limited research suggests that tea tree oil can be used to treat athlete's foot (tinea pedis) and toenail fungal infections. Although research is lacking, some people use tea tree oil for the following conditions:

A Word From Verywell

More studies need to be done on the effects tea tree oil has on acne. Proven acne treatments are still your best option, not only because they have a well-studied track record but because they treat all of the different acne-causing triggers, not just bacteria.

If you have more than just the occasional blemish, and your acne is persistent, tea tree oil simply isn't the most effective option. You'll be better off using a proven OTC acne product like benzoyl peroxide, or getting a prescription medication from your dermatologist. This is especially true for stubborn or severe acne.

Already using prescription acne treatments? Make sure you ask your healthcare provider before you incorporate tea tree oil products into your routine.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I apply tea tree oil directly on my acne?

    Tea tree oil can be applied directly on pimples or areas of skin that are prone to breakouts, but it should always be mixed with a carrier oil like almond oil first.

  • How long does it take for tea tree oil to clear acne?

    It can take two to three months of use for you to see the effects of most topical acne treatments. If you don't see an improvement in your acne within three months of using a treatment, consult with your healthcare provider.

  • Is tea tree oil or salicylic acid better for acne?

    You may have success with either. But while only limited research suggests that tea tree oil might be helpful in treating mild to moderate acne, salicylic acid is a proven acne-fighting agent.

  • Can I leave tea tree oil on my face overnight?

    Yes, it's safe to leave diluted tea tree oil on your skin overnight. Before doing so, it's recommended that you first test the oil on small area of skin to find out if you have a sensitivity or allergy.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cao H, Yang G, Wang Y, et al. Complementary therapies for acne vulgaris. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;1:CD009436. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD009436.pub2

  2. Enshaieh S, Jooya A, Siadat AH, Iraji F. The efficacy of 5% topical tea tree oil gel in mild to moderate acne vulgaris: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study. Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology, and Leprology. 2007;73(1):22-5. doi:10.4103/0378-6323.30646

  3. Malhi HK, Tu J, Riley TV, Kumarasinghe SP, Hammer KA. Tea tree oil gel for mild to moderate acne; a 12 week uncontrolled, open-label phase II pilot studyAustralas J Dermatol. 2017;58(3):205-210. doi:10.1111/ajd.12465

  4. De groot AC, Schmidt E. Tea tree oil: contact allergy and chemical composition. Contact Derm. 2016;75(3):129-43. doi:10.1111/cod.12591

  5. MedlinePlus. Contact dermatitis.

  6. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Tea tree oil.

  7. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Tea tree oil.

  8. OSHIMS. Ti Tree, Tea Tree.

  9. Zaenglein AL. Acne in infants, young children, and preadolescents. UpToDate.

  10. Graber E. Patient education: Acne (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate.

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.