Tea tree oil is derived from the tea tree plant, Melaleuca alternifolia, and is native to Australia. Indigenous Australian people have used the oil to treat skin infections and wounds since they first made a poultice of the leaves and covered their skin with the homeopathic remedy. “The oil (and even rubbing natural leaves on the skin) has been shown to have several different useful antiseptic, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties, some proven better than others,” says Jessica Krant, M.D., M.P.H., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York City.

Today the undiluted oil is light yellow with a nutmeg-like scent and is hailed for its healing properties. It’s commonly used in soaps, cosmetics and cleaning products.

You may be surprised to know that tea tree oil is not only prescribed by aromatherapists and herbalists but is widely used in Western medicine as well. Here are some of the more unusual uses for this inexpensive vial of Australian gold.

Colds and sore throats

“One of the best things I use tea tree oil for is when I feel a sore throat or anything else cold-like, coming on, I start to take a couple of drops of tea tree oil on my tongue every hour or so,” says Ingrid Perri, an aromatherapist in Melbourne, Australia. “More often than not, after two or three doses, the symptoms disappear.” You can also try gargling with a few drops of tea tree oil in a glass of warm water, then spit.

Heads up: the taste is not pleasant. Generally tea tree oil is not for oral consumption as it can be toxic to the central nervous system. Use sparingly and never swallow.

During waxing

Renee Gilanshah, a master esthetician and co-owner of Amir Salon in Vienna, Va., found that tea tree oil is a superior way to prep the skin for waxing procedures. It removes excess oil, which minimizes wax adhesion and eliminates bacteria, leading to a healthy waxing experience. “Post-wax, tea tree oil calms skin irritation,” says Gilanshah. Plus, the oil can minimize redness, stinging, itching and bumps.

Plantar warts

Put tea tree oil directly on the wart, rub it in, and let dry before putting on footwear/socks.  It's best to do this at night before you go to bed. Rub it on, read for 15-20 minutes, and let it dry.  “But don't wear socks to bed, as that adds moisture, which fungus thrives in,” says Krista Moyer, N.D., a naturopath doctor at Broadway Wellness in Vancouver, British Columbia. For sensitive skin, you can add tea tree oil to a carrier oil like almond.  Presto: The wart(s) will disappear.  

Skin conditions like dandruff, acne and nail infections

Tea tree oil can be effective against dandruff or psoriasis, acne and toenail infections. “The key is that the concentration of essential tea tree oil has to be high enough to have an effect, but low enough not to cause too much irritation to the skin,” says Krant, the dermatology professor. For example, 5 percent tea tree oil in a gel is probably helpful for acne without being too irritating, but only 100 percent tea tree oil, used twice daily, for six months, has been shown to be effective on toenail fungus. “If your tea tree treatment is not working in a timely manner, do see a board-certified dermatologist to make sure of the diagnosis and to get some helpful relief faster,” says Krant.

Sinus infections

“Tea tree oil is antibacterial and antiviral, making it great for any sort of infection of the nasal and respiratory system,” says Moyer. Place a few drops of tea tree oil in small saucepan of boiling water. Remove from heat and tent with a towel over your head. Breathe in for 10-15 minutes. This inhalation will loosen phlegm when you're congested. 

Tea tree oil also has many uses for cleaning and disinfecting. Check out a recipe for homemade tea tree laundry detergent and how to use tea tree oil as an air freshener.

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