Essential Oil Files: Tea Tree

This is the first of our resident aromatherapist, Susan Munro's series on Essential Oil treatments. Here she focuses on one of the most useful essential oils, Tea Tree.

I have always said every bathroom cabinet should contain two essential oils: lavender and tea tree. More about the former next week, this week we're talking about the latter. This powerhouse oil, obtained from the leaves of the Australian Melaleuca Alternifolia tree, has a strong, pungent odor, champhorous, refreshing and cleansing. Tea Tree is an extremely useful oil when it comes to cleaning away dirt, removing bacteria and fungus, and has even been shown to have possible anti-viral applications. As an aromatherapist, it is one of the most powerful tools in my kit, and used with care can yield wonderful results.

While Tea Tree is one of the newest oils to be discovered by the West, this plant has been used for thousands of years by the indiginous Bunjalung people of North-Eastern New South Wales, on Australia's Eastern Seaboard. They inhaled the crushed leaves for relief from coughs and colds, and applied the leaves to their wounds followed by a poltice to protect the wound from infection and hasten healing. When the uses of the oils were discovered and published by Arthur Penfold in the 1920s and 30s, the Australian tea tree oil industry was born. Originally created by hand from bush stills, the production of tea tree oil is big business: over 3000 hectares of the plant is growing in Australia today, with the highest-quality oil still being produced in North-Eastern New South Wales.

This pale golden oil is a quality addition to your personal natural medicine kit, as it is useful in a variety of medical conditions, particularly concerning the skin and respiratory systems. For example, a drop or two added to a cotton tip can be used directly on a pimple (please note, if you have sensitive skin, use lavender instead). Also excellent for treating skin fungus, a few drops of tea tree oil can be applied to areas of athlete's foot (soak feet in warm water beforehand, and gently pumice the area first), then air-dry for 5 – 10 minutes every day until the condition is eradicated. Tea Tree extract is also often found as a 5% dilution in anti-dandruff shampoos.

If you suffer from sinus congestion/infection, try steaming once in the morning and once at night for 20 minutes or so with 4 or 5 drops of oil in a bowl of hot water (around 1 litre or 4 cups), sink or specialised face steamer. Pop a small towel over your head for extra effect: this is also great for the pores, giving them an excellent, natural clean. You can also add a few drops to a vaporiser to loosen up a chest infection.

Tea Tree is often used in cleaning products as a natural solution to harsh, poisonous chemical compounds. The Daily Green has this great recipe for an excellent porcelin or tile cleaner: add 2 cups of water, 3 tablespoons of liquid soap and 20 to 30 drops of tea tree oil to a spray bottle and shake. Simple, clean and green! Burning Tea Tree Oil (perhaps coupled with lemon) also helps dissipate mustiness in the home, bringing a fresh, 'clean' feeling to the room. 

As always, please consult a qualified aromatherapist or consult a guide written by one before attempting to mix your own essential oil blends. Books I recommend include The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy and The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Please note this article does not replace medical advice. Never ingest essential oils of any kind.