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While many articles warn of the dangers associated with ingesting tea tree essential oil, the remedy was recommended by a friend whose opinion I respect. I delved into the research closely before forming my opinion. This article shares with you why I believe tea tree essential oil is a valuable anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and first aid tool. We’ll talk about the risks, the benefits, how to use tea tree oil internally and in what health situations tea tree oil may be a more useful remedy than other alternatives, such as antibiotics.
Ultimately each of us must decide what we feel is safe. Use your own discretion.
Introduction to Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree essential oil is derived from the plant Melaleuca alternifolia. Tea tree is most commonly used externally, against human pathogens on the skin, due to its antimicrobial properties.
While often used topically, one group of scientists wanted to know if tea tree essential oil was toxic to human cells. A 2014 study looked at the possible destructive effect of tea tree oil (TTO) on a cell’s genetic material. They were asking the question, “Is tea tree genotoxic to human cells?” (source)
Their conclusion was, “TTO … is not genotoxic in in vitro mammalian cells.” No significant differences were observed between the mammalian cells exposed to TTO in petri dishes and the negative control cells. (source)
If the 2014 study showed TTO to be harmless in in vitro human cells, what risks are associated with the internal use of TTO? Many sites say that TTO is poisonous and should not be ingested.
In fact, all essential oils should be handled with extreme care and kept out of reach of children.
Interestingly, all cases of tea tree oil’s toxicity are linked to misuse, for example when a child drinks the concentrated herbal medicine instead of 1-2 drops being encapsulated for and by an adult and used in the proper way with a carrier oil or base fat (which I discuss more below).
Here are the known cases of TTO’s toxicity in humans:
- A 4-year-old boy ingested a “small quantity” of tea tree oil and within 30 minutes became ataxic and progressed to unresponsiveness. The child gradually improved over 10 hours. (source)
- A 17-month-old male child developed ataxia and drowsiness following ingestion of less than 10 mL tea tree oil. (source)
- A 23-month-old boy became confused and was unable to walk 30 minutes after ingesting less than 10 mL of a commercial product containing 100% melaleuca oil. Five hours following ingestion the child was asymptomatic. (source)
- A man aged 60 swallowed about half a teaspoonful of tea tree oil and had a dramatic rash accompanied by leukocytosis (an increase in the number of white cells in the blood). (source)
- One person lapsed into a coma for 12 hours after ingesting half a cup of pure tea tree oil and suffered disturbances of consciousness for another 36 hours. (source)
When sites warn about the topical use of tea tree oil, the warning is based on a 2007 occurrence:
- In 2007, 3 boys exhibited prepubescent tender breast buds after using products containing either lavender or tea tree essential oils. The two oils were blamed for having estrogenic and antiandrogenic activities. (source)
As several practitioners have pointed out in regard to the 2007 cases, there are many other variables that are not being considered (the products’ other ingredients, diet, environmental triggers, medicines, etc.). Essential oil developer and expert Robert Tisserand states, “Lavender [and tea tree] oil does not mimic estrogen nor does it enhance the body’s own estrogens.” (source)
Tea tree oil can cause dermal irritation in sensitive individuals. Proper use of essential oils is important to reduce the risk of skin irritation and sensitization. Learn more about essential oil safety here.
There are no oral repeat dose toxicity studies available for TTO. The only cases of TTO toxicity correspond with inappropriate use of TTO and overdose. (source) (However, as you’ll see below, history has shown and several studies have been done using TTO internally with positive results.)
Additional considerations and safety recommendations — A suspected carcinogenic substance contained in TTO, methyl eugenol, should not exceed 200 ppm (or 0.02%) as a minor constituent of TTO, and the content should be indicated in the ingredient list. Choose a trustworthy essential oil company. TTO use should be short term only, due to its methyl eugenol content. To reduce the formation of oxidation in products containing TTO, due to aged or improperly stored oil with a much higher sensitizing potential than the pure unmodified oil, seek out glass bottles that minimize exposure to light. In young children, accidental ingestion of small amounts of tea tree oil has produced confusion, ataxia, and drowsiness. TTO products should be labeled with a warning text such as, “Keep out of reach of children”. (source)
Background of Tea Tree Oil
Melaleuca alternifolia comes from Australia. Australian soldiers brought it with them as they fought in WWII. The soldiers drank a strong infusion of tea tree and used it externally for first aid needs. Westerners loved the ancient remedy, but it was soon overshadowed by the introduction of antibiotics and forgotten. Now antibiotic resistant “superbugs” are turning the tables once again. With the need for natural antibiotics, we may turn to tea tree oil. (source)
Internal and External Benefits: Antibacterial
In February of 2018, the World Health Organization announced the horrifying truth,
New resistance mechanisms are emerging and spreading globally, threatening our ability to treat common infectious diseases, resulting in prolonged illness, disability, and death …
WHO continues, “Antimicrobial resistance occurs naturally over time, usually through genetic changes. However, the misuse and overuse of antimicrobials is accelerating this process. In many places, antibiotics are overused and misused in people and animals, and often given without professional oversight. Examples of misuse include when they are taken by people with viral infections like colds and flu, and when they are given as growth promoters in animals or used to prevent diseases in healthy animals.
Antimicrobial resistant-microbes are found in people, animals, food, and the environment (in water, soil and air).
… Resistance in Klebsiella pneumoniae – common intestinal bacteria that can cause life-threatening infections – to a last resort treatment (carbapenem antibiotics) has spread to all regions of the world. K. pneumoniae is a major cause of hospital-acquired infections such as pneumonia, bloodstream infections, and infections in newborns and intensive-care unit patients. In some countries, because of resistance, carbapenem antibiotics do not work in more than half of people treated for K. pneumoniae infections.
Resistance in E. coli to one of the most widely used medicines for the treatment of urinary tract infections (fluoroquinolone antibiotics) is very widespread. There are countries in many parts of the world where this treatment is now ineffective in more than half of patients …” (source)
What does all of this mean to us individually and on a global level? Infections are harder or sometimes impossible to control. We must look elsewhere for our solutions. Even the White House’s 2015 Action Plan For Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria includes a recommendation to turn to essential oils. (source)
Tea tree presents a history of centuries of use, safety and efficacy. Over 300 studies have proven TTO’s antimicrobial benefits. (source)
A 2013 Phytomedicine study showed tea tree oil can be taken internally, safely, alongside antibiotics (the goal of the study was to reduce antibiotic resistance by using antibiotics synergistically with various essential oils).
A 2016 study showed TTO to be fully effective against Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus sobrinus, Streptococcus mutans, and Escherichia coli. (source) In this study, essential oils from two tea tree species, kanuka and manuka, were evaluated for internal use in treating diseases and inflammation caused by microorganism infection. This study concluded,
… the antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects of the oils were obtained without adversely affecting the immune system … These results indicate that the potent antimicroorganism and anti-inflammation properties of kanuka and manuka essential oils make them strong candidates for use in treating infections and immune-related disease. The data confirm the potential use of kanuka and manuka extracts as pharmaceutical antibiotics, medical cosmetology agents, and food supplements. (source)
While antibiotics reduce immunity over time by destroying beneficial gut flora, weaken the body and make it susceptible to new infections, tea tree oil has shown itself benign amidst human cells while killing infectious microorganisms and reducing inflammation. As mentioned above, tea tree oil must be used responsibly and, like all medicines, below the cytotoxic dose.
Tea Tree Oil presents a natural alternative to antibiotics and a cost affordable solution to growing health concerns.
According to Eric Zielinski, DC (Dr. Z), TTO can be used as a natural remedy for conditions such as:
- Bacterial infections
- Cold sores
- Congestion and respiratory tract infections
- Fungal infections
- Head lice
- Dry cuticles
- Insect bites, sores and sunburns
- Boils from staph infections
We recently used tea tree oil for a loved one with chronic bronchitis, which is why it was originally recommended to me. TTO was used alongside oregano oil and colloidal silver after four rounds of antibiotics had been unsuccessful at reducing symptoms. After one week of tea tree, oregano and silver use, the patient was asymptomatic and thriving.
In fact, tea tree oil’s antiviral properties are promising and exciting. TTO has proven antiviral effects against influenza A⁄PR⁄8 virus subtype H1N1: “It has been found that TTO had an inhibitory effect on influenza virus replication at doses below the cytotoxic dose.” (source) TTO has also been found to reduce herpes simplex viruses. (source)
The aboriginal people of Australia used tea tree oil for its antifungal properties. Since that time, many studies have shown TTO’s efficacy against C. albicans and non-albicans Candida species. Interestingly, these studies showed the anti-fungal activity against pathogenic yeasts resistant to fluconazole and/or itraconazole. For treatment of vaginal yeast infection, this study concluded, “… the infection was resolved in 3 weeks by TTO, whereas all other animals, either untreated or fluconazole-treated, were still infected at the end of the 3 week period.” (source) Another study identified that most components of TTO have activity against a range of fungi. (source)
Update: An article released in April of 2019, just after the publication of this post, revealed a new fungal superbug, Candida Auris: “A deadly, drug-resistant fungus is infecting patients in hospitals and nursing homes around the world. The fungus seems to have emerged in several locations at once, not from a single source … The symptoms — fever, aches and fatigue — are seemingly ordinary, but when a person gets infected, particularly someone already unhealthy, such commonplace symptoms can be fatal.” Why is this happening? The article tells us that fungicides, “have created an environment so hostile that the fungi are evolving, with resistant strains surviving.” (source)
Speaking for myself, I take great comfort knowing about the powerful antifungal effects of tea tree oil. Because so many of these outbreaks are happening in hospitals around the world, I would use tea tree oil prophylactically (as a method of prevention) if I or a family member had to be hospitalized. The fatality rate is high with this newly discovered superbug, and hospital workers themselves are scared of C. Auris. The article warns, “Scientists say that unless more effective new medicines are developed and unnecessary use of antimicrobial drugs is sharply curbed, risk will spread to healthier populations. A study the British government funded projects that if policies are not put in place to slow the rise of drug resistance, 10 million people could die worldwide of all such infections in 2050, eclipsing the eight million expected to die that year from cancer.”
Tea tree oil has shown anti-cancer benefits. Both TTO and its main active component terpinen-4-ol , “were able to impair the growth of human M14 melanoma cells and appear to be more effective on their resistant variants.” (source) Another study showed Terpinen-4-ol contains antiproliferative and antitumor effects on human lung cancer cells. (source)
A 2005 study showed the antihistamine effects of TTO within ten minutes of dermal application. (source) (I’m personally curious about the implications this may have on internal histamine-induced skin inflammation and gut dysbiosis related to histamine intolerance.)
How to Take Tea Tree Oil Internally, Safely
When essential oils are used externally, a carrier oil is used to dilute the oil, but also to help the oil penetrate into blood circulation and prevent evaporation. (source) The medium oil also protects the skin from the oil’s strong phytochemicals, spreads out the healing, concentrated remedy and helps it to absorb more gently and broadly. When taken internally, the same concepts apply. Tea tree oil needs to be consumed with a healthy, traditional fat:
- 1 to 2 drops of TTO can be placed into a gelatin capsule (to protect the esophagus) and swallowed with a high fat beverage (such as a fat-fortified smoothie, heavy cream, coconut milk etc.), accompanied by a spoonful (2 to 3 teaspoons) of grass-fed butter or coconut oil to protect epithelial cells that line the gut and aid in TTO’s absorption into the blood stream.
- Consider using TTO externally first, diluted with a carrier oil, to check for sensitivity.
The consumption of essential oils (EOs) in general is controversial. Aromatherapists often advise against the use of EOs internally based on their concern that lay people may not be educated enough to use EOs safely. But the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy officially says, “…essential oils may be applied on the skin, inhaled, diffused or taken internally. Each of these methods have safety issues which need to be considered.” (source) Robert Tisserand condones the internal use of 1 to 2 drops of essential oil used daily for medicinal or culinary purposes. (source) Certainly when in doubt, err on the side of safety, and consider the use of each essential oil individually. This article does not support the internal use of all essential oils. Regarding use with children, please consult your trusted holistic practitioner or aromatherapist.
To use externally for immune boosting, tea tree oil can be diluted with a carrier oil, such as castor oil (find it here), and applied to the bottom of one’s feet:
- Combine 1 to 2 drops of TTO with 1/2 teaspoon castor oil. Rub into the bottoms of feet. Optionally, pull on wool socks, and rest or sleep. See and download a more complete dilution chart here. Exact dilution depends on the patient, their age and their health circumstances.
Tea tree oil may also be diffused into the room or used with a steam tent for lung conditions or other health concerns.
There is a low risk of skin sensitization when using tea tree oil topically, with a dermal maximum of 15% dilution.
For external wound healing, Robert Tisserand mentions that less dilution is key: “… tea tree oil does not work well for wound healing unless it is used at 5% or more.” (For source and more in depth study, read about essential oil safety here.)
Where to buy tea tree oil and which brand to choose? I use Plant Therapy because it was formulated by Robert Tisserand, it’s “KidSafe” when diluted, and it’s affordable. (Find it here.) Certainly other reputable brands of essential oils are also available. Choose an essential oil company that uses the common and the Latin name, chemotype (when applicable), gives the country of origin and shares their farming and production processes.
What are your experiences using tea tree essential oil?