Tea Tree Oil:
A Natural Ingredient
for the Body Care
and Cosmetics Industries

by Cynthia Olsen
Author and Founder of Kali Press

With a market-wide increase in the use of natural compounds and especially naturally derived essential oils, the focus is on cosmetic and body care formulations. Throughout the world, companies are launching new cosmetics and personal care products that include tea tree oil. This essential oil is obtained through steam distillation of the foliage from the Australian tea tree Melaleuca alternifolia, a particular species of the Myrtacae family. In the first classification, Melaleuca alternifolia was listed as a variant of Melaleuca linariifolia, and then later raised to species rank.1


Tea tree oil is a natural substance with a broad spectrum of activity. It is environmentally safe and has a long history of use and clinical data. Tea tree contains over one hundred individual organic compounds consisting of a mixture of monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes and terpene alcohols. One of these fractions is terpinen-4-ol. At a 35-40% concentration, the anti-microbial activity increases. In addition to its germicidal effects, there have been anecdotal reports of its anti-inflammatory benefits. Tea tree is effective when used pure or with various emollients, humectants, surfactants, and ingredients in products of all kinds. As a valuable ingredient, tea tree has first and foremost a pronounced antifungal and antibacterial effect, which is beneficial both in application and for the shelf life and integrity of the product itself.


One of the challenges concerning natural therapeutic substances from the natural pharmacopoeia and from inert mineral and other constituents is adequate history and research. In this regard, tea tree has a long history of detailed research. Dr. Penfold made the first scientific study of Melaleuca alternifolia oil in the 1920's in Australia, and many additional studies followed quickly.2 By now, over seventy years of research has been carried out on this essential oil, covering all aspects of dermal application, effect and somatic applications of all kinds. There has been special focus on antibacterial and antifungal effect. Tea tree was found to be 13 times more effective as a germicide than Carbolic Acid, the existing standard at that time.3

Cineole and Terpinen 4-01

The leading component of tea tree oil which is known to relate to it's effectiveness is terpinen-4-01, the main active ingredient; two of these fractions which are highly active, a-terpinene and y-terpinene together account for at least 30% of the total. Cineole has mistakenly been labeled as a skin irritant. Recent research has been produced that states cineole is not an irritant. The misconception perhaps arose in the Australian Standards ISO/DIS 4730 Oil of Melaleuca Terpinen-4-01 type in 1994, with some small changes in the standards by ISO TC 54 Committee. Cineole was required to be 15% or less. This led to the belief that cineole interfered with the beneficial effect of the terpinen. The fact is that terpinen at lower levels, raises the cineole by volume. This means there is less of the active ingredient terpinen-4-ol available in that sample.4 The "main" ingredient is terpinen-4-ol known for the antifungal and antimicrobial effect.

Cineole considered as a non-irritant

This factor is an important one, especially for dermal products of all kinds, and tea tree has come to have a possibly exaggerated reputation for allergenic considerations. Recent research has discovered (Southwell, Markham, Mann, 1999) that cineole is not an irritant. The pure 1,8 cineole was tested in strengths from 3.8 up to 28.1 %. An occlusive patch on human subjects did not produce irritation of the skin. Tea tree oil concentrations from 1.5 up to 28.8% as a 25% formulation mixed in white paraffin did not produce irritation in human skin either. This latest study may help to clarify the "irritant" issue and give cineole its true value.


The extensive literature on tea tree does focus on sensitivity, and the limits to which concentrations of the oil may be most beneficial. At concentrations of 5% and higher, the oil is beneficial as an antiseptic, acne, and anti fungal treatment. Between 0.5-5% it maintains healthy skin care in cosmetic and personal care formulations. Therefore, tea tree oil may be considered a beneficial element in a multitude of body, skin or hair products, as long as reasonable limits are observed depending on the frequency of use, area for the application, and the strength of the various elements in the formulation.


Wide attention is being given to the challenges of our modern environment with regard to airborne pathogens of all kinds. Due to the ability of many viral and fungal spores to remain quiescent yet alive for long dormant periods, there is the constant potential for many common and novel forms of infection to occur and reoccur. This affects not only the consumer and their particular personal conditions, it also affects the products in terms of integrity of the composition. Preservative agents are a necessity, to protect products from invasion and damage from bacterial infestation, and from oxidation and chemical decomposition. We know that the natural preservative agents available, such as green tea extract, clove oil, ginger and vitamins C & E are less likely to cause allergenic reactions than the synthetically created antibacterial ingredients, such as quaternary ammoniums, BHA and BHT. The benefits of tea tree oil are therefore not only derived by application and use, but also occur within the product itself. Tea tree will be a defense against deterioration and infestation within the products. However, for tea tree oil to be effective as a preservative, the concentration needs to be 5% or more. Other factors such as product stability may be adversely affected. Therefore, tea tree may assist, but other preservatives should possibly be considered.


The strong antimicrobial and antibacterial effect of tea tree has been studied in research extensively, with particular focus on the cosmeceutical and perfumery industries. Altman (1991) 5 focused on skin sensitivity and irritation potential of tea tree. Southwell studied skin irritancy (1997) and cineole as a potential irritant (1996) as already discussed. Tong et al (1992) 6 researched tea tree in the treatment of Tinea Pedis while Walker (1972) 7 made a clinical investigation of tea tree for a variety of foot problems. Walsh et al studied the antimicrobial effect of tea tree on oral pathogens.8 Apted (1991),9 and De Groot et al (1992)10 investigated contact dermatitis, which is associated with tea tree in extreme cases.

The use of tea tree oil in cosmetics and toiletries has been a feature of its development from the beginning. The first studies were by Penfold (1925). Recently, Williams et al presented the study of antimicrobial activity of oil of Melaleuca (Tea tree oil): Its potential use in cosmetics and toiletries in Cosmetics, Aerosols and Toiletries, Australia.11 Tea tree continues to be a leading ingredient for research and focus for the industry.

Tea Tree Uses in Cosmetics and personal care products

As previously stated, French cosmetic manufacturers and American companies are using tea tree oil in toiletry and cosmetic formulations that include lip balm, body lotion, moisturizer, deodorant, shower gels, toothpaste, mouthwashes and dental floss. Tea tree's spicy aroma adds appeal when mixed into soaps, shampoos, creams and perfumes. Elegant salons and spas are adding tea tree oil to massage lotions and pre-manicure/pedicure soaks.

Tea tree's properties aid in the repair of damaged skin caused by sun, acne, dry skin, and various other problems. Skin takes on a youthful glow. The U.S. Government has approved the use of tea tree oil in cosmetic formulations. The oil is non-irritating to almost all areas of the body, and at times, depending on the application and treatment, will help dead tissue slough off, allowing healthy skin to appear.

Hair Care Benefits with Tea Tree: anti dandruff and antifungal

  • Balances excess oily hair

  • Anti-dandruff treatment using 1-5% tea tree oil

  • Fungal dandruff study done by the University of Western Sydney in a 0.5% (MIC) against Pitryosporum ovales.

  • Head lice Pediculus capitas; tea tree repels and kills mites and eggs.

    Summation: Tea tree oil has beneficial activities in shampoos and conditioners containing between 1-5% tea tree oil and suggested higher strengths for extreme scalp problems.

    Face and Mouth Care Benefits: germicidal, anti inflammatory, anti plaque, anaesthetic

  • Pimples and acne subside: Propionbacterium acnes: also staphylococcus species

  • Cracked lips: Lip balms containing 1-3% tea tree oil

  • Bacteria and gums: Toothpaste/mouthwash, tea tree concentrations over 0.5%

  • Ingrown hairs and rashes: Shaving products: 1 % tea tree oil added.

    Body Product Benefits :anti bacterial, antifungal, germicidal

  • Anti bacterial: Deodorants: 2-3% concentrate tea tree oil

  • Anti bacterial/ fungus: Soaps/bath oils and shower gels: 1-2%

  • Cracked and dry skin: After Sun Lotion: 1 % tea tree oil

    Hand Care: anti fungal, anti-inflammatory

  • Cracked hands and nails/fungus: 1-5% tea tree oil

    Feet and Legs: anti inflammatory, anti fungal

  • In-grown hairs and hair removal/bikini waxing/shaving: 1-2% tea tree oil.

  • Athletes foot products: 1-3% tea tree oil

    Use has expanded with a wide array of tea tree products from numerous suppliers found industry wide. Exports of the essential oil from Australia, which is the major source for tea tree, has grown from 8 tons to between 300-400 tons a year in the last ten years. 12 This significant increase matches the industry's rise in sales and in the natural and cosmeceutical trade. The aromatherapy industry, including all aspects of essential oil use in products and services, will have reached $1 billion by 2000, according to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA, Boulder, Colo). 13 The extensive use of essential oil continues to be part of many product lines and new formulations, and this trend is expected to continue. Accurate and careful assessment of each natural element is an important part of such expansion and growth, both for producers and consumers. If wisely used and carefully combined with other compatible ingredients, tea tree oil will show continued promise and potential in the cosmeceutical industry.


    Olsen, C. (1998) Australian Tea Tree Oil Guide, 3rd Edition. Kali Press. Pagosa Springs.

    Olsen, C. (1999) Australian Tea Tree Oil First Aid Handbook, 2nd Edition. Kali Press. Pagosa Springs.

    Southwell, I.A. and Lowe, R. (1999) Tea Tree: The Genus Melaleuca. Harwood Academic Publishers. Gordon and Breach.

    Williams L.R., Home V, Asre S. (1990) Antimicrobial activity of oil of Melaleuca (Tea tree oil): It's potential use in cosmetics and toiletries. Cosmetics, Aerosols and Toiletries, Australia. 4 (4), pp. 12-13, 16-18,22.

    Altman, P. (1991) Assessment of the skin sensitivity and irritation potential of tea tree oil Report for Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. Pharmaco Pty Ltd. Sydney, Australia.

    Apted J.H. (1991). Contact dermatitis associated with the use of tea tree oil. Australias J. Dermatology 32, 177.

    De Groot A, Weyland W. (1992) Contact allergy to tea tree oil. Contact Dermatitis. 26, 309

    Boland, D.J., Brooker MIH, Chippendale, GM, Hall N, Hyland BPM, Kleinig DA, Turner J. (1984) Forest Trees of Australia, 4th edition, Nelson, Melbourne.

    Southwell I.A. (1996) Tea tree oil, skin irritant and bioactivity. Australiasian Aromatherapy Conference, Sydney, March-April 1996, Sec. 4, 11pp.

    Southwell I.A., Markham J, Mann C. (1996) Is cineole detrimental to tea tree oil? Perfumery & Flavorist, Vol. 21, pp. 7-10.

    Tong M.M., Altman PM, Barnetson R St.-C (1992) Tea tree oil in the treatment of tinea pedis. Australiasian Journal Dermatol. Vol. 33, pp. 145-149.

    Walsh L.J., LongstaffJ, (1987) The anti-microbial effects of an essential oil on selected oral pathogens. Peridontology, Vol. 8, pp. 11-15.

    Kali Press. A Comprehensive Australian Tea Tree Oil Bibliography: Melaleuca alternifolia. Kali Press. Pagosa Springs. 2000. Electronic PDF

    Australian Tea Tree Oil Standards

    Summary of Use and Data on Australian Tea Tree Oil: courtesy of the Australian Essential Oil Company, and Mr. Bill McGilvray, and may be found on their excellent Website, listed under their company name.

    According to AEOC, Tea tree oil (Melaleuca Alternifolia) Oil should be used in an organic or pure as possible state. Tea tree oil is now produced in Organic, Premium, Standard, Technical grades, and is certified by both NATA (Australian Tea Tree Industry Association) and Biological Farmers of Australia. Oil used should also meet the ISO 9002 quality standard for congruence with test and research literature results. Organic standards in Australia are set by OPAC (Organic Produce Advisory Committee) and administered by AQIS (Australian quarantine & Inspection Service). Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA) issues certification numbers which should be checked before use or research with batches of essential oil. Categories of Oil are set as Pharmaceutica1- 3% or less 1,8 cineole; 37% or more terpinen-4-o1, Cosmetic - 5% or less 1,8 cineole; 35% or more terpinen-4-o1, Technica1- 10% or less 1,8 cineole; 30% or more terpinen-4-o1. Source of these standards; The Australian Essential Oil Company 61 2-6683-2124/ Fax 61-26683-2603 - PO Box 158 Coraki NSW 2471 Austra1ia http://www.australessence.com/tea_tree.htm

    About the Author

    Cynthia Olsen was one of the pioneers in the importing efforts of tea tree oil into the United States and Canada in the 1980's. Ms. Olsen has authored four books on the subject. In 1990, she founded Kali Press to further education, research and knowledge concerning leading innovative health issues. She contributes articles on health, and is currently completing her latest book.

    Copies of the Australian Tea Tree Bibliography can be obtained over the internet as an electronic document from the publisher Kali Press at http://www.kalipress.com. Kali Press publishes a comprehensive tea tree library covering the full range of uses of tea tree oil for both human health and domestic and farm animals.

    Kali Press P.O. Box 1031 Port Townsend, WA 98368-1031 360-385-1933 360-385-1180(fax)


    1 Southwelll.A., Markham J., Mann C. (1996) Is Cineole detrimental to tea tree oil? Perfumer and Flavorist.21 (5) 7-10.

    2 Penfold, A. R. and Grant, R. (1925) The germicidal values of some Australian essential oils and their pure consitutents. Together with those for some essential oil isolates, and synthetics. Part III. J. Proceedings of the Royal Soc. Of NSW., 59, 346-350.

    3 Australian Plantations. (1998) Tea Tree Oil. Bronson and Jacobs. Pty.

    4 Southwell, I.A., Markham, J. and Mann, C., (1997b) Why cineole is not detrimental to tea tree oil. RIRDC Research Papers Series. 97/54. Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Canberra.

    5 Altman, P. (1991) Assessment of the skin sensitivity and irritation potential of tea tree oil. Report for Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. Pharmaco Pty Ltd. Sydney, Australia.

    6 Tong, M.M., Altman, P.M. and Barnetson, R. St.-C. (1992) Tea tree oil in the treatment of Tinea pedis. Australasian J. Deratol., 33,145-149.

    7 Walker, M. (1972) Clinical investigation of Melaleuca alternifolia oil for a variety of common foot problems. Current Podiatry, 2, 7-15.

    8 Walsh, L.J. and Longstaff, J. (1987) The antimicrobial effects of an essential oil on selected oral pathogens. Peridontology, 8, 11-15.

    9 Apted, J.H. (1991) Contact dermatitis associated with the use of tea tree oil. Australia J. Dermatology, 32, 177.

    10 De Groot, A. and Weyland, W. (1992) Systemic contact dermatitis from tea tree oil. Contact Dermatitis, 27, 279-280.

    11 Williams, L.R.I, Home, V. and Asre, S. (1990) Antimicrobial activity of oil of Melaleuca )Tea tree oil): Its potential use in cosmetics and toiletries. Cosmetics, Aerosols and Toiletries. Australia 4 (4) 12-13, 16-18,22.

    12 Statistics courtesy of Mr. Bill McGilvray, Australian Essential Oil Company, February 2000.

    13 Aromatherapy Sales Nose Upwards. (1999) Nutrution Business Journal. April.

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