In my recent top 5 post, I noted that tea tree oil was the number two search result starting with "tea". I actually just bought some tea tree oil, and, although it is not related to tea in any way other than by name, I thought, having had it come up on my blog as well as finding its way into my medicine cabinet, it would be worth writing about.
Tea tree oil, shown above, is colorless and watery, with a slightly herbal, anti-septic sort of odor. Although it is called an oil, it mixes more readily with water or alcohol than with true oils.
What exactly is "tea tree oil"?
Tea tree oil refers to the essential oil of a plant, Melaleuca alternifolia, which is in the Myrtle family, related to lemon myrtle, but not closely related to the tea plant, not even in the same order. Wikipedia has a good article on tea tree oil as well as an article on the species.
Uses of tea tree oil:
Tea tree oil is used primarily as an antiseptic. It has antibacterial and antifungal properties, which have been well-established through scientific study, and it also has antiviral properties. It can also be used against infections caused by parasites, such as mites or lice.
There is solid science backing many of these uses, and the oil has been found to be as effective as a number of synthetic drugs; the Wikipedia article has numerous links to scientific studies, and google scholar turns up a lot more (thousands of results) than can be found on that page. The chemical responsible for many of tea tree oil's antimicrobial properties is called Terpinen-4-ol; this chemical, pictured above, is also present in other plants, and is the main component of the essential oil of nutmeg.
Points of caution when using tea tree oil:
Tea tree oil is toxic if eaten or taken internally. This issue is especially a matter of concern for pets, as many pets groom themselves (involving licking) and can poison themselves by licking an area of their skin to which tea tree oil has been applied. A certain portion of people react allergically or with skin irritation to its application. When I purchased this product, it came with a sensible warning to, before using it, apply a small amount of oil to a healthy test area on the forearm, and wait 24 hours to assess whether you have a reaction.
Why did I buy it?
One thing that I have been doing, gradually, over the course of many years, is phasing out the use of synthetic chemicals in personal care products, and replacing them with natural products. There are compelling reasons to use natural products over synthetic products, both from a personal health perspective, and from the perspective of environmental sustainability.
Herbal products tend to be safer (although this is not always the case) than synthetic drugs:
In terms of health, a lot of natural products are much safer than synthetic drugs, at the doses required to be similarly effective. This safety can be measured in terms of lower rates of side effects and toxicity. I see this pattern all the time in the course of researching herbs on RateTea, such as hibiscus, which is as effective as, and much safer than, certain prescription anti-hypertensive medications. (RateTea, in case you have not noticed, has a growing collection of articles on specific herbal teas, with extensive sections on the health and medicinal properties of a number of herbs.) The body of scientific research for most herbs is smaller than the body of scientific research on most drugs, in part because of the absence of the profit motive, and in part because of a historical (and hopefully, waning) focus in Western society on synthetic drugs. However, as time goes on, the body of research supporting herbal products is continually growing, and we are learning more about their safety and efficacy. Tea tree oil is one product which has been fairly well-studied, and is considerably safer than a number of other topical antimicrobial agents.
Synthetic drugs can be persistent in the environment and damage ecosystems:
Synthetic drugs, including common over-the-counter ones, can be persistent in the environment. For example, clotrimazole, a common ingredient in over-the-counter antifungal creams, and triclosan, a common anti-microbial agent used in many personal care products, have been found to act together as marine pollutants, harming communities of microalgae and disrupting aquatic ecosystems. I picked these two examples because they are typically used for the same purposes as tea tree oil, so the natural oil would make a good alternative or substitute to these products. Incidentally, these two synthetic drugs are not without concerns about their safety and impacts on health.
Naturally occurring chemicals are not always safer or less persistent, but as a general trend, they tend to be more likely to break down. Part of this is because naturally-occurring chemicals have existed for years, so organisms have already evolved ways to break them down.
What do you think?
Have you ever used tea tree oil, or any products containing it? Do you have any opinion on it or any relevant experiences to share? Do you think about the persistence of chemicals in the environment when choosing what sorts of products to buy? Do you make an effort to use natural products in place of synthetic drugs wherever possible?