Tea tree oil for the treatment of acne

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In your efforts to fight acne you’ve surely come across salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. But perhaps you just don’t get along with either of these, or they don’t work particularly well for you. Less commonly spoke about for the treatment of acne is tea tree oil. TEA TREE OIL?! Yes, tea tree oil. There are a plethora of reasons you might want to try tea tree oil to treat your acne! For one, it treats a wide range of blemishes: comedonal acne (blackheads, whiteheads, smaller blemishes) and inflammatory acne (those big, angry painful spots). It also has anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties.

What is tea tree oil

Tea tree oil (aka melaleuca oil), is a lipophilic, essential oil derived from the Australian native plant Melaleuca alternifolia (Myrtaceae). The oil contains approximately 100 components, of which, terpinen-4-ol is the most abundant, making up roughly 40% of the oil.

tea tree oil main component

How tea tree oil works against acne

Acne – a chronic inflammatory skin disorder – is known to be caused by a combination of factors, including abnormal desquamation of the follicular epithelium, excessive sebum production, inflammation and the presence of the bacterium Propionibacterium acnes.

Tea tree oil is effective against acne due to several different reasons (see below).

It’s anti-bacterial

As we have already mentioned, a major contributor of acne is bacteria. It is well-established, clinically, that tea tree oil has anti-bacterial properties. Its antimicrobial activity is attributed mainly to terpinen-4-ol. Tea tree oil is capable of inhibiting a range of clinically important bacteria, with many inhibited at <2% (v/v). Tea tree oil has been found to be highly effective against Propionibacterium acnes, a major contributor of acne; several studies highlight this – 2 report minimum inhibitory concentrations of tea tree oil of 0.31–0.62% (v/v) and 0.5% (v/v) for single strains of this bacterium. Another study reports minimum bactericidal concentrations of 0.25–0.5% for 32 Propionibacterium acnes strains.

(BONUS: it’s anti-fungal and anti-viral. Give it a go next time you have a cold sore.)

Anti-inflammatory properties

Acne is know to occur in some individuals in the absence of Propionibacterium acnes, indicating that there are other causes of acne. Inflammatory changes are known to be present before hyperproliferation or the formation of microcomedones, characterised by the presence of higher than normal levels of CD4+T-helper cells and macrophages. Even in the case of follicle colonisation with Propionibacterium acnes, there is, as a result, an induction of inflammatory changes such as the production of cytokines by host tissues and activation of the innate immune response.

Several studies have shown that tea tree oil suppresses inflammation: cytokine production and macrophages are inhibited by tea tree oil and the major component terpinen-4-ol.

Top tips

  1. Don’t use tea tree oil with any other actives such as retinol, any other acne treatment etc
  2. Tea tree oil-containing products tend to be less effective than pure tea tree oil due to the low concentration of the oil in them. So for acne, opt for pure tea tree oil such as this (clickable link).
  3. Apply with a cotton bud (initially once before bed then work up to 2-3x per day): wet the cotton bud with water first to dilute the tea tree oil. If irritation occurs then withdraw usage.


Hammer, K. A. (2015). Treatment of acne with tea tree oil (melaleuca) products: a review of efficacy, tolerability and potential modes of action. International journal of antimicrobial agents45(2), 106-110.

Carson, C. F., Hammer, K. A., & Riley, T. V. (2006). Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) oil: a review of antimicrobial and other medicinal properties. Clinical microbiology reviews19(1), 50–62.

Raman, A., Weir, U., & Bloomfield, S. F. (1995). Antimicrobial effects of tea‐tree oil and its major components on Staphylococcus aureus, Staph. epidermidis and Propionibacterium acnes. Letters in applied microbiology21(4), 242-245.

Kwon, H. H., Yoon, J. Y., Park, S. Y., Min, S., & Suh, D. H. (2014). Comparison of clinical and histological effects between lactobacillus-fermented Chamaecyparis obtusa and tea tree oil for the treatment of acne: an eight-week double-blind randomized controlled split-face study. Dermatology229(2), 102-109.

Jeremy, A. H., Holland, D. B., Roberts, S. G., Thomson, K. F., & Cunliffe, W. J. (2003). Inflammatory events are involved in acne lesion initiation. Journal of Investigative Dermatology121(1), 20-27.

Holland, D. B., & Jeremy, A. H. (2005, June). The role of inflammation in the pathogenesis of acne and acne scarring. In Seminars in cutaneous medicine and surgery (Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 79-83).

Hart, P. H., Brand, C., Carson, C. F., Riley, T. V., Prager, R. H., & Finlay-Jones, J. J. (2000). Terpinen-4-ol, the main component of the essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree oil), suppresses inflammatory mediator production by activated human monocytes. Inflammation Research49(11), 619-626.

Nogueira, M. N. M., Aquino, S. G., Rossa Junior, C., & Spolidório, D. M. P. (2014). Terpinen-4-ol and alpha-terpineol (tea tree oil components) inhibit the production of IL-1β, IL-6 and IL-10 on human macrophages. Inflammation research63(9), 769-778.