Clearing acne is a complete Catch-22. You can use potent skin care formulations to banish a breakout, but because acne sufferers are more likely than not to have sensitive skin, this often comes at the cost of causing even more irritation and inflammation than what you started out with. On the other hand, you can steer clear of the aforementioned formulas to avoid doing more harm than good, but then you're stuck with unwanted breakouts, bacteria-laden pores, and inflamed skin. The good news? There's a more gentle (and natural) acne-busting alternative on the block—and its name is tea tree oil.
Tea tree oil is a tried-and-true favorite among skin care pros and beauty buffs alike, boasting anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that'll ferociously fight against even the most stubborn breakout. Below, find everything you need to know about this magical ingredient, including its benefits as well as how to properly use it (because yes, there is a wrong way).
What is tea tree oil?
Tea tree oil is an essential oil extracted from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia tree, a tea tree native to Australia. Its history dates back to aboriginal times in Australia where it was deemed to be a "medicine cabinet in a bottle." It's certainly worthy of the title, as it was effective at curing colds and coughs through inhalation as well as treating wounds and insect bites among Australian soldiers during World War II.
More recently, skin care experts have discovered tea tree oil's brimming list of beauty benefits, the main one being its impressive ability to stop acne in its tracks. According to cosmetic dermatologist Michele Green, M.D., FAAD, the oil is naturally anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial1, meaning "it can kill off acne-causing bacteria, soothe inflammation, and calm swelling and redness associated with acne."
Does tea tree oil work for acne?
Tea tree oil has antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial properties, making it effective for combating most forms of acne, from non-inflamed blackheads and whiteheads to painful nodules (you know—those hard, tender bumps that form underneath the skin). If you're dealing with a host of comedonal acne (aka the kind that stems from fluctuating hormones or clogged pores), Green says tea tree oil can be an effective form of treatment. One study found that a 5% tea tree oil topical gel helped to significantly improve mild to moderate acne symptoms2. Researchers have also seen an increase in white blood cell activity associated with tea tree oil use, which is integral when it comes to the acne-healing process3.
We know what you're thinking—this sounds strangely familiar to benzoyl peroxide. The difference? Tea tree oil is also anti-inflammatory, which means it has the ability to "soothe and relieve irritated, itchy, red, swollen skin," notes Marina Peredo, M.D., aboard-certified dermatologist in New York. This mitigates the risk of developing skin sensitivities—as is often the case with traditional acne-clearing ingredients like our little friend benzoyl peroxide—and is a much gentler, non-irritating alternative to combating acne that can also reduce the risk of scarring. True, tea tree oil is slower at warding off acne than benzoyl peroxide, but for those with easily irritated skin, the gentler approach may be worth the wait.
TL;DR: Tea tree oil possesses qualities that make it an effective fighter against acne, inflammation, and bacteria that leads to breakouts.
How to use tea tree oil.
You'll find tea tree oil in an array of skin care products ranging from face washes and toners to moisturizers and spot treatments. You can also use pure tea tree oil on your skin, but there's a caveat: Green says that applying straight-up tea tree oil directly onto the skin can exacerbate skin irritation or cause burning—ouch.
It's always recommended to dilute tea tree oil (FYI: This is the case for all essential oils)—either by mixing one to two drops in with your moisturizer or by combining it with a carrier oil like safflower oil (which pairs beautifully with tea tree thanks to its noncomedogenic, anti-inflammatory qualities).
If using straight-up, chemist and esthetician Marie-Veronique Nadeau says to be vigilant with your application at the onset of a breakout—this means applying the diluted oil two to three times a day after cleansing. When you see the breakout begin to clear up (likely after a few weeks), you can tone it down to one to two times daily.
Of course, because of tea tree oil's potency, it's always best to conduct a 24-hour patch test on your inner forearm to rule out any allergic reactions, which would pop up as redness, breakouts, or itchiness, says Nadeau.
Side effects of tea tree oil.
Sadly, natural doesn't always mean side-effect-free. As mentioned, pure tea tree oil is heavily concentrated, which means it can cause some serious skin irritation if used undiluted. This is especially true if you're eczema-prone or the owner of temperamental skin.
Also, Green notes that as with most essential oils, tea tree oil "contains chemicals that can increase skin photosensitivity, which makes it more susceptible to damage caused by the sun's UV rays." Bottom line: Avoid exposing your skin to the sun when pure tea tree oil is on the skin care menu, or just use it as part of your p.m. skin care routine to avoid the risk altogether.
You should also be mindful of using tea tree oil in conjunction with other potent active ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and retinol, warns Peredo, as the combination can be extremely drying and irritating, especially for sensitive skin types.
Using products that are pre-formulated with tea tree oil is your best bet if you're concerned with exacerbating your acne flare-ups. This decreases your risk of a dermal disaster, and your skin will benefit from the other complementary ingredients in the product's formulation.
Tea tree oil is a centuries-old ingredient celebrated for its impressive healing qualities. For those struggling with acne, incorporating the ingredient into your skin care regimen can be a real game-changer—just make sure you're diluting it correctly and not exposing your skin to sunlight post-application. Or, take advantage of skin care products that list tea tree oil as a hero ingredient to send your breakouts packing.
Michelle Rostamian is a freelance writer specializing in beauty, wellness, and lifestyle. Her work has appeared on Cosmo, Elle, Marie Claire, USA Today, Byrdie, The Zoe Report, PopSugar, and more. Michelle graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a B.A. in Communications.