The Skin We’re In: Because sometimes beauty really is skin deep.
What kind of hippie skin treatment is tea tree oil? If you ask the growing group of dedicated users, it’s a good one. Mario Dedivanovic, who is Kim Kardashian West’s makeup artist, douses his zits in it. So does Emma Stone. Even Meghan Markle “cannot live without it,” telling Allure that she always travels with a small tin of the stuff just in case a pimple catches her off guard. But does it work, really? And what is it even supposed to do? Let the Cut explain.
What is tea tree oil? Is it … from a tree?
Tea tree oil is derived from the leaves of an Australian tree called Narrow-Leaf Paperbark. It’s poisonous when ingested, so never drink it. It is a natural antimicrobial agent, meaning that it kills or stops the growth of certain bacteria strains and fungal infections. This is why it’s a common ingredient in dandruff shampoos (fungal) and acne treatments (bacteria). Since it’s free of synthetic ingredients, it’s a hit in the natural beauty community.
Does it actually treat acne?
Prove it. I want to see studies.
A 1990 study legitimized tea tree oil as an effective acne remedy. The double-blind study looked at 124 people with acne and it found that a 5-percent concentration of the oil “had a significant effect in ameliorating the patients’ acne by reducing the number of inflamed and non-inflamed lesions.” Subsequent studies amplified these results. In 2017, researchers tested different formulations of tea tea oil — an “oil gel” and a face wash — against acne. After 12 weeks, they concluded that “the use of the tea tree oil products significantly improved mild to moderate acne.”
Okay, I’m listening. How does it compare to other acne treatments?
The 1990 study specifically compared tea tree oil to benzoyl peroxide, another very common antibacterial acne treatment. They discovered that a 5-percent benzoyl peroxide concentration performed just as well as an equal dose of tea tree oil, but the benzoyl peroxide cleared acne much more quickly. On the flip side, a 2006 study observed how benzoyl peroxide is nearly twice as irritating as tea tree oil. Seventy-nine percent of benzoyl peroxide users experienced redness, stinging, and dryness, versus 44 percent of tea tree oil users. Unfortunately, there are no studies that compare tea tree oil with salicylic acid or sulfur, which are two other popular acne fighters.
What else can tea tree oil do?
It’s also an anti-inflammatory ingredient, which comes in handy when you’re trying to shrink a zit or quell an allergic reaction (say, for example, from a bug bite), as this 2002 study notes. You can also apply tea tree oil to your scalp if you have dandruff. Don’t believe me? Here’s some more science: a 5 percent tea tree oil shampoo lessens the severity of dandruff by 41 percent.
Interesting! So what’s the bad news?
Like a number of acne remedies (and essential oils), tea tree oil is irritating. Some users might notice a burning sensation, increased redness, and itching. This irritation risk increases as the tea tree oil concentration rises. What does this mean? Well, if you want to treat your acne at the most effective concentration (5 percent), then there’s a chance your skin might experience some of these adverse reactions. There are less potent options available, but their efficacy isn’t backed up by medical research. Alas, there’s always a tradeoff.
Got it. What are some tea tree oils I should try?
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