Tea Tree Oil to Clear Acne

tea tree oil for acne
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An essential oil long used in aromatherapy, tea tree oil may help to fight acne blemishes when it is diluted and applied to the skin. Derived from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia tree in Australia, tea tree oil has also been used for many years to fight skin infections such as athlete’s foot, dandruff, and ringworm, and wounds.

Why Is Tea Tree Oil Used Topically for Acne?

Used as an ingredient in acne washes, pads, cleansers, and astringents, tea tree oil is said to have anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. The oil contains a variety of constituents (such as alpha-terpineol), with terpinen-4-ol being the purported active ingredient.

A preliminary study published in Letters in Applied Microbiology found that tea tree oil components terpinen-4-ol, alpha-terpineol, and alpha-pinene had antimicrobial activity against Propionibacterium acnes, the skin-dwelling bacteria involved in the development of acne.

Does It Work?

While research on the effects of tea tree oil is limited, there’s some evidence that tea tree oil may help treat acne. For instance, a study by the Department of Dermatology at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Australia (published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1990) compared the effectiveness and tolerance of a 5 percent tea tree oil gel with a 5 percent benzoyl peroxide lotion in 124 people with mild to moderate acne.

The results of the study found that both the tea tree oil and benzoyl peroxide had a significant effect in reducing the number of inflamed and non-inflamed acne lesions (open and closed comedones) over the three month study period. Tea tree oil took longer to work initially, but was associated with fewer side effects. In the benzoyl peroxide group, 79 percent of people had side effects including itching, stinging, burning, and dryness.

A smaller study published in the Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology, and Leprology in 2007 involved 60 people with mild to moderate acne who were treated with either a gel containing 5 percent tea tree oil or a placebo for 45 days. Researchers found that the tea tree oil was more effective than the placebo in reducing the severity of acne and the total number of acne lesions.

Should It Be Applied Undiluted to Acne Blemishes?

Pure, undiluted tea tree oil is found in health food stores and online, but when it is applied topically at full-strength, it can cause skin irritation, redness, itchiness, blistering, and it can be drying to the skin. (In studies, a 5 percent gel was applied daily for up to three months or a 5 percent gel was applied to acne twice a day for 20 minutes then rinsed off with water, for 45 days.) 

Like other essential oils, tea tree oil can be absorbed through the skin (resulting in toxicity), so it should only be used in very small, recommended amounts. Tea tree oil shouldn't be applied to the eyes or mucous membranes.

The Bottom Line

Although these studies are promising, further clinical trials are needed. If you're considering using it for acne, talk with your healthcare provider first to discuss whether it's appropriate for you.

Some people may find that changing their diet can help to decrease acne. For example, avoiding high-glycemic foods such as white bread, pasta, and sugar may help some people.

If you’re interested in mind-body solutions for acne, meditation, exercise, and massage therapy have been found to decrease stress, which is sometimes associated with acne. 

A number of other remedies may help keep your skin clear. For instance, a 2010 review of natural products used in dermatology published in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology named Saccharomyces boulardii and the herb Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) as other promising natural products for the treatment of acne.

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Article Sources

  • Bassett IB, Pannowitz DL, Barnetson RS. A Comparative Study of Tea-Tree Oil Versus Benzoylperoxide in the Treatment of Acne. Med J Aust. (1990) 153 (8): 455-458.
  • 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 J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. (2007) 73 (1): 22-25.
  • Raman A1, Weir U, Bloomfield SF. Antimicrobial Effects of Tea-Tree Oil and Its Major Components on Staphylococcus Aureus, Staph. Epidermidis and Propionibacterium Acnes. Lett Appl Microbiol. 1995 Oct;21(4):242-5.
  • Reuter J1, Merfort I, Schempp CM. Botanicals in Dermatology: An Evidence-Based Review. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2010;11(4):247-67. doi: 10.2165/11533220-000000000-00000. ​