Ingredient To Know: Tea Tree Oil

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A trash can full of tea tree oil-soaked cotton pads does not smell like trash at all. It smells only like tea tree—AKA melaleuca extract—which is pretty eucalyptus-y but fringes, also, on peppermint-y. This scent is just one of many reasons tea tree oil deserves its own place somewhere other than your trash can. Let’s talk about them.

First, a little history: Melaleuca comes from Australia, where it was used by Aboriginal Australians and adopted by colonists circa the mid-18th century. (It has nothing to do with the actual tea plant.) Rumor has it that the leaves of the tree were used as wraps to treat wounds—the remedy really worked, and was passed on down the line all the way over into Western medical practices, and finally commercially sometime during the 1920s. Now, it’s used primarily as an antimicrobial, and an effective one. Meaning that as a topical treatment it can kill bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms.

More research is becoming available all the time, but over the course of the last century or so—even just in the past decade—tea tree oil is gaining traction, especially in the beauty world. For good reason, too! Not only does it apparently work to prevent and halt infection in things like new ear piercings, cuts, burns, and scrapes (thanks to its anti-bacterial capabilities) but the results are beginning to suggest it can do a lot more: It’s used to solve athlete’s foot and other fungal infections. It is added to shampoos and other hair products as an anti-dandruff remedy. It’s an anti-inflammatory. AND it works as an effective acne treatment. Try using a Q-tip to apply it to your zit before bed and see what happens.

While it goes without saying that you really couldn’t ask for more of a single ingredient, tea tree oil isn’t hypo-allergenic—it can cause dermatitis in people with sensitivities. Be sure to spot test before you use it all over your face. But once you’re sure, chances are you’ll always want a bottle of this stuff around. Yes, even just for the smell. Keep an eye on this one, guys.

Photographed by Tom Newton.

Ready for more? Read here for another ingredient you should know about: fern.

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