TYPE OF PLANT: Malaleuca or Tea Tree
Melaleuca (/ ˌmɛləˈljuːkə /) is a genus of nearly 300 species of plants from the myrtle family, Myrtaceae, commonly known as paper bark, honey-myrtle, or tea-tree (although the surname is also applied to Leptospermum species). The size varies from small shrubs that rarely reach a height of over 16 m (52 feet), to trees up to 35 m (115 feet). Their flowers generally appear in groups, forming a "head" or "tip" that resembles a brush used to clean bottles, containing up to 80 individual flowers.
Melaleucas is an important food source for nectarivorous insects, birds and mammals. Many are popular garden plants, either for their attractive flowers or as dense screens, and some are of economic value for the production of fencing and oils such as "tea tree" oil. Most melaleucas are endemic to Australia, with some also occurring in Malaysia. Seven are endemic to New Caledonia and one is found only on Lord Howe Island (in Australia). Melaleucas is found in a wide variety of habitats. Many are adapted for life in swamps and marshy places, while others thrive in poorer sand soils or on the edge of salt flats.
Traditional Aboriginal Uses
Aboriginal Australians used several species of Melaleuca to build rafts, as a cover for shelter, bandages and food preparation. "Bee bread" and honey were collected from the hives of stingless bees in the tea tree forests in the Northern Territory. The Bundjalung people traditionally lived in the area of northeastern New South Wales, where Melaleuca alternifolia is endemic, and they treated skin infections by squeezing the leaves of that species over skin infections and covering the area with a warm mud pack.
Tea tree alternifolia is known for its essential oil which is both antifungal and antibiotic, while it can be safely used for topical applications. This is produced on a commercial scale and marketed as tea tree oil.
Tea tree cajuputi is used to make a similar oil, known as cajuput oil, which is used in Southeast Asia to treat a variety of infections and to add fragrance to food and soaps.
Benefits and Uses
The oil has been used for nearly 100 years as a curative treatment in Australia, particularly for skin conditions. Today it is used for a number of conditions.
Tea tree oil is probably best known for its antibacterial activity.
Some research suggests that the broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity associated with oil derives from its ability to damage the cell walls of bacteria. More research is needed to understand how this might work.
Some studies show that tea tree oil can help treat some viruses, but research is limited in this area.
Contact dermatitis is a form of eczema caused by contact with an irritant or allergen. Different treatments for contact dermatitis were compared, including tea tree oil, zinc oxide and clobethasone butyrate.
The results suggest that tea tree oil was more effective in suppressing allergic contact dermatitis than other treatments. However, it had no effect on irritant contact dermatitis.
Keep in mind that tea tree oil itself can induce allergic contact dermatitis in some people.
Dandruff and Milky Crust
Mild to moderate dandruff related to yeast Pityrosporum ovale can be treated with 5% tea tree oil, according to one study.
People with dandruff who used a 5% tea tree oil shampoo daily for 4 weeks showed significant improvements in overall severity, as well as itchy and greasy levels, compared to a placebo.
Participants had no adverse effects.
Another study found that tea tree oil shampoo is effective for treating babies with cradle caps.
It is possible to be allergic to tea tree oil. To check for a reaction, put some shampoo on the child's forearm and rinse. If no reactions occur within 24-48 hours, it should be safe to use.
Malaleuca tree oil can help calm inflammation, probably due to its high concentration of terpinen-4-ol, a compound with anti-inflammatory properties.
In animal tests, terpinen-4-ol has been found to suppress inflammatory activity in case of mouth infection. In humans, locally applied tea tree oil reduced the swelling of histamine-induced skin inflammation more effectively than paraffin oil.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health warns that research on the effects of locally applied tea tree oil on people is limited.
However, the oil can be useful for a number of skin disorders.
Acne is the most common skin condition. It affects up to 50 million Americans simultaneously.
One study found a significant difference between the malaleuca tree oil gel and a placebo in the treatment of acne.
Participants treated with tea tree oil reported an improvement in both total acne count and acne severity.
This is based on previous research which compared 5% tea tree oil gel with 5% benzoyl peroxide lotion in the treatment of mild to moderate acne.
Both treatments significantly reduced the number of acne lesions, although the tea tree oil worked more slowly. Those who use tea tree oil have experienced fewer side effects.
Head lice are becoming more resistant to medical treatments, so experts are increasingly considering essential oils as alternatives.
The research compared tea tree oil and nerolidol, a natural compound found in some essential oils, in the treatment of lice. Tea tree oil was more effective in killing lice, eradicating 100% after 30 minutes. On the other hand, nerolidol was more effective in killing eggs.
A combination of both substances, at a 1 part to 2 ratio, worked best to destroy both lice and eggs.
Other research found that a combination of tea tree oil and lavender oil was effective in "choking".
A review of the effectiveness of tea tree oil highlights its ability to kill a range of yeasts and fungi. Most of the studies reviewed focus on Candida albicans, a type of yeast that commonly affects the skin, genitals, throat, and mouth.
Other research suggests that terpinen-4-ol improves the activity of fluconazole, a common antifungal drug, in the case of resistant strains of Candida albicans.
The symptoms of athlete's foot, or tinea pedis, were reduced through the topical application of a tea tree oil cream, according to a study.
A 10% tea tree oil cream seemed to reduce symptoms as effectively as 1% tolnaftate, an antifungal drug. However, tea tree oil was no more effective than a placebo in achieving total cure.
More recent research has compared higher concentrations of tea tree oil on athlete's foot with a placebo.
A noticeable improvement in symptoms was seen in 68 percent of people who used a 50 percent tea tree oil application, with 64 percent getting the total cure. This was more than double the improvement seen in the placebo group.
Mushrooms on Nails
Fungal infections are a common cause of nail abnormalities. They can be difficult to cure.
One study compared the effects of a cream comprising both 5% tea tree oil and 2% butenafine hydrochloride (a synthetic antifungal) with a placebo.
After 16 weeks, the nail fungus was cured in 80% of people. None of the cases in the placebo group were cured.
Another study has shown that tea tree oil is effective in eliminating nail fungus in the laboratory.
However, this research does not conclusively prove that the tea tree oil component of the cream is responsible for the improvements experienced, so more research is needed.
A gel containing tea tree oil can be useful for people with chronic gingivitis, an inflammatory disease of the gums.
Study participants who used tea tree oil gel experienced a significant reduction in bleeding and inflammation compared to a placebo or a chlorhexidine antiseptic gel.
Other research indicates that a type of bacteria associated with bad breath can be treated with tea tree oil and alpha-bisabolol, the active component of chamomile.