‘Put some tea tree on it,’ said my husband-to-be 3 months before our wedding last year, when an eczema-style stress rash erupted on the back of my neck and head. It’s a piece of advice that rings out in our home at the first sight of any miscellaneous ailment. From rashes and wounds to spots, burns and bites, he swears that it can cure them all. Having always been sceptical of its magical healing powers and irritated by it being touted as a miracle cure yet again, I decided to do a little investigation. Annoyingly, it would seem that he’s onto something with this one.
Tea tree oil, as it turns out, is the one-size-fits-all t-shirt of the medicinal world. Beyond the rashes, wounds, spots, bites and burns, this strong-smelling botanical oil is championed as a natural treatment for lice and fleas, a cure for toenail fungus and verrucas, it can relieve asthma, treat acne, it’s reported to work as an antiseptic, a cure for stinky breath and some very enthusiastic home keepers even use it as an ingredient in homemade toothpastes, deodorants, carpet and kitchen cleaners. The list, it appears, is inexhaustive.
Extracted from the leaves of the ‘Melaleuca alternifolia’ tree, which can be found growing along streams and on swampy flats in Australia’s Queensland and New South Wales, this unassuming, colorless oil owes its magical powers to its molecular makeup: 98 compounds and six chemotypes (or ‘oils with different chemical compositions’ to you and me), most crucially a chemotype called ‘Terpinen-4-ol’, which possesses antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
It was commercialized for widespread use in the 1920s but despite all of its reported benefits, tea tree oil is only classed as ‘possibly effective’ and experts state that there is insufficient evidence to recommend its routine use in a clinical setting. This doesn’t seem to have deterred sales of the stuff though, with chemists reporting a spike in popularity over the past year. Those wanting to try it out should buy in small quantities – 5ml is the maximum that is needed – and take note that the potent oil should be diluted with water or a carrier oil to avoid skin irritation. In addition, tea tree oil is also sensitive to oxidation – if left exposed to air it can produce harmful compounds that can trigger local skin irritations and contact allergies. For this reason, it should be stored in an amber-colored glass bottle and disposed of after three years.
As for my own rash? A month after the wedding, it disappeared of its own accord, but if it ever raises its ugly head again you may well see me quietly reaching for the tea tree oil, just in case.
Ali Morris x
Image: Florian von Linprun