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Tea Tree Oil (Melaleuca alternifolia)

tea tree

Tea tree oil, which is derived from the leaves of the Australian paper bark tree has been a traditional remedy among Australian Aboriginals for centuries, and was used by Australian troops for battlefield injuries in the First World War. It is now well known in Europe and the US for its antiseptic properties, and is used in shower gels, toothpastes, mouthwash and face cleansers, to cure skin complaints, as a deodorant, to treat cuts and burns, and as an insect and louse repellent.

The active consituents are terpenoids, which have powerful antiseptic and antifungal activity. The compound terpinen-4-ol is the most abundant and is thought to be responsible for most of tea tree oil's antimicrobial activity.

Tea tree oil has been found to be effective for acne, athlete's foot, boils, dandruff, eczema, periodontal (gum) disease, psoriasis, thrush, vaginitis and a variety of other localised infections including MRSA.



Tea tree oil even in undiluted form has been used by many people to treat topical infections without reported side-effects. However it can be irritant to some people, may cause intestinal discomfort and diarrhoea if taken by mouth (because it kills beneficial gut bacteria), and may give rise to allergic reactions ranging from mild contact dermatitis to severe blisters and rashes (rare).

 WARNING: Cats and kittens

Despite its widespread availability for use in controlling fleas and skin infections in cats and dogs tea tree oil should never be used on kittens or even adult cats as it is highly toxic to all felines even when used externally. Exposure can cause irreversible neurological damage including ataxia, and also muscle weakness and/or damage to the liver and kidneys.

There have been warnings that tea tree oil should not be taken internally, even in small quantities, because it may can cause immune system disturbances and potentially fatal central nervous system depression (excessive drowsiness, sleepiness, confusion, coma). However the evidence for such effects is anecdotal and weak. It should possibly be remembered that tea tree oil is an effective natural alternative to various prescription drugs and disinfectants, and as such may become the target of disingenuous attacks designed to limit its use as a replacement for such products.

There have also been reports of tea tree oil having both oestrogenic and anti-androgenic effects. According to reports originally published in the New England Journal of Medicine and then in New Scientist magazine, three boys aged four, seven and ten developed breast tissue (gynaecomastia) after having been exposed to shampoos and lotions containing tea tree oil or lavender oil. As a precaution, young males, people with hormone-sensitive cancers or pregnant or nursing women should probably avoid tea tree oil or products containing it.



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