Tea Tree Oil

Posted by Dr Davin Lim on

By Dr Davin Lim

Best used : AM/PM

Up to twice a day


Caution: Skin irritation common, allergic potential

Best for: Acne, some fungal infections

Comments: Essential, naturopathic skin care oil

Mode of action: Antibacterial & Antifungal

Science Score: ☆ ☆ ☆ 


What is the science behind tea tree oil?

Tea tree oil, known as melaleuca oil, is an essential oil. It is derived from steaming the leaves of the Australian tea tree. When used topically, tea tree oil is believed to be antibacterial and is commonly used to treat acne, athlete's foot, lice, nail fungus and insect bites. It also has anti-inflammatory properties which have been heavily studied by dermatologists for the last 20 years.

Tea Tree Oil

What skin conditions can be treated with tea tree oil?

Tea tree oils powerful antibacterial & antifungal properties make it effective in treating:

  • Acne - can be effective for blackheads, whiteheads, zits, & pimples
  • Fungal infections or the skin & nails
  • Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis)
  • Lice

Can you put tea tree oil on a popped pimple?

Dermatologists discourage people popping pimples because in the majority of cases it’s performed incorrectly. Precisely performed with a sterile needle you can gently apply pressure with cotton swabs but do not dig with your nails. Afterwards dab with tea tree oil which has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. You can also apply a pimple patch to help with healing but be careful not to overuse as this can lead to inflammation. 

What can I put on a popped pimple overnight?

In a perfect world, you can dab an antibiotic ointment & leave overnight. My best advice is to treat your popped pimple-like an open wound, because that's basically what it is. An over-the-counter antibiotic ointment is your best friend. Dot a tiny amount directly on the popped pimple or scab to help speed up healing time and dry it out. Look for ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and hydrocolloid dressing! 

Can tea tree oil make acne worse?

Tea tree oil may work wonders on some peoples breakouts, however oils in general can be comedogenic, meaning pore clogging, which can trigger acne breakouts. Bottom line? Use as directed, be precise in your application to acne spots only & not acne prone areas. For prevention of acne, consider retinol or retinoids as these are applied to acne prone areas. 

How long does tea tree oil take to work on acne?

In comparison to benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, tea tree oil works more slowly and irritates the facial skin less. A study showed that applying tea tree twice daily for 45 days, reduces acne severity such as lesion count as well as skin inflammation.

Can you put tea tree oil directly on your skin?

Skin care experts consider tea tree oil to be safe as a topical treatment, and you can apply it directly to unbroken skin with intact skin barrier. When applied to the skin in its pure (100% oil) form, tea tree oil seldom causes allergic reactions (less than 2%), however irritation is not uncommon. As always conduct a patch test to a small area for several days prior to full field application. 

What is the best way to use tea tree oil?

How to use: Use will vary, depending on your formulation as it comes in various forms like oil, gel, creams, lotions & more!

For acne, zits, & pimples the usual guideline is to apply tea tree oil as a spot treatment 1-2 times a day. This formulation should NOT be used as a field treatment - as with retinol, retinoids. For more information on how dermatologist treat acne, browse the section on acne treatments, or visit @101.skin on IG.

Tea tree oil

Can I leave tea tree oil on my face overnight?

Yes, studies have shown that tea tree oil reduces both inflamed and non-inflamed lesions associated with acne when left on your skin for a few hours or overnight.  Rinse your face with warm water and repeat daily & in some cases twice a day as tolerated. 

Does Tea Tree Oil remove dark spots?

Since tea tree essential oil is a superpower when it comes to prevention of inflammatory skin lesions, it can also lead to the prevention of dark spots. This ability comes primarily from the TTOs ability to prevent and rapidly heal a blemish or a wound, rather than just fading the spots themselves.  

How effective is tea tree oil against fungus?

Tea tree oil has antifungal properties which kill fungi like the ones that cause ringworm. Despite the few well designed studies on TTO, many patients report it is effective in the treatment of fungal infections of the feet, body, nails & scalp. Discuss with your naturopath the risk benefit ratio of TTO. Most dermatologists will not elect to use this as first line therapy. 

What are the side effects of tea tree oil?

In general there are less side effects of TTO compared to say benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid spot treatments. The most common adverse event is irritant contact dermatitis or red, angry, inflamed skin when too much product is used. But don't stress, this is super easy to treat! Just give your skin a break for 3-5 days, then restart at half the application amount and frequency. 

This is very different from allergic contact dermatitis which can be seen in 2-5% of patients (depending on the literature you read). Patch testing by a medial dermatologist with a special interest in contact dermatitis can give you an answer!

Tea tree oil

How do I incorporate tea tree oil in my skin care routine?

A sensible skin care routine that involves TTO goes something like this:

AM: Gentle washSPF,  make up, with the option of antioxidants (Ferulic acid, Ascorbic acid, Tocopherol)

PM: Cleanser, tea tree oil, moisturiser

*Consider retinol or niacinamide as adjunctive management. If these are to be added to your skin care regimen, best use TTO in the am as a spot treatment. Alternatively you can spot treat before or after field treatment of acne. Be guided by your skin care expert. 

Davin’s Pro Tip on Tea Tree Oil

This is the number one naturopathic treatment for acne, followed by witch hazel. Tea tree oil, has been studied by dermatologists for the past two decades, so it is relatively new. There have been several studies documenting the effects of TTO for both inflammatory & non-inflammatory acne, & the results are good. There have been several studies documenting the allergic (as well as irritant) potential of TTO. These studies have shown between <2 to 5% of subjects can be sensitised to TTO. Regardless, the use of botanical extracts have seen a significant surge in the context of skin care, with more ingredients being every year. 

Bottom line? If you must, give it a go. No real harm for the management of non-scarring acne, hell, it may save you a visit to the dermatologist. As always, start slow, test patch & increase as tolerated. For patients with recalcitrant or scarring acne, you may want to consider other treatment options including the use of retinol, retinoids, chemical peels or oral medications. Book in to see one of my colleagues @cliniccutis.

*Disclaimer: I am a procedural dermatologist, though I have some knowledge of skin care including the management of acne, my work is focused on the management of severe scars, procedures such as surgery, injectables, strong peels, & powerful lasers. Beyond a synopsis of skin care actives, I do not give general skin care advice as there are many variables that are required for an accurate management plan. 

Tea tree oil


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