Tea Tree Oil in Skincare: Can It Replace Salicylic Acid and Benzoyl Peroxide?

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Tea tree oil is known by most as one of the best acne fighters, and it’s often compared to salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide on the skincare scene. Even though it’s hard to compete with these two powerhouses, tea tree oil could still be a great addition to your acne-fighting routine if you know how to play with it. Curious already? Read on to learn the science behind the benefits of tea tree oil in skincare and the best methods to incorporate it into your beauty ritual.

What is tea tree oil?

Tea tree oil is the essential oil obtained from steaming the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia tree. It’s made of over 100 compounds, which imbue tea tree oil with endless good-for-skin properties, including antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antioxidant.[1][2] As for skincare, tea tree oil has been mostly researched for addressing various forms of acne and proved effective for dermatitis and wound healing. Now here’s how tea tree oil can improve your skin:

How does tea tree oil benefit the skin?

You already know tea tree oil can treat acne, but have you wondered how it does that and how effective it really is? 

Tea tree oil has strong antibacterial and anti-inflammatory activities and has been found to have inhibiting effects on over 20 types of bacteria when used at a concentration of 1%.[3] Moreover, it turns out tea tree oil eliminates acne-causing bacteria even when used in concentrations of 0.5%, which is safe for skin and fairly easy to find in OTC products. It can reduce both non-inflammatory (aka whiteheads and blackheads) and inflammatory acne, and it was proved to give similar results (but slightly slower) to benzoyl peroxide when both are used at the same concentration (specifically 5%).[4]

Besides being used in products for treating acne, tea tree oil is also often included in face washes since it’s a powerful solvent that can dissolve the buildup of bacteria beneath the skin’s surface. 

Interestingly, tea tree oil is also an antioxidant that helps neutralize free radicals, culprits which often exacerbate the apparition of breakouts. A 2004 study points out that, when diluted in methanol, tea tree oil has an 80% free radical scavenging activity.[1] Furthermore, tea tree oil can hinder the growth of yeasts and fungi, helping alleviate skin infections.[5]

Is it safe?

Tea tree oil can cause both irritation and allergic reactions, but that’s unlikely to happen unless you apply it directly to your skin without diluting it. Remember, tea tree oil is made from a mix of over 100 compounds, and a part of them are fragrances, which are known to be skin irritants. However, in skincare products, tea tree oil should be easily tolerated by most since it’s found in low concentrations.

What concentration of tea tree oil is best for skin?

Studies have shown that tea tree oil expresses its best acne-fighting abilities when used at a 5% concentration, but lower strengths have also proved to have bacteria-inhibiting effects. However, The European Cosmetic and Perfumery Association advises that tea tree oil shouldn’t be used in concentrations higher than 1% in skincare products due to the increased irritation risk and low stability. But again, most studies have found tea tree oil to be well tolerated in concentrations as high as 5%.

How to use tea tree oil

How to use tea tree oil for skin mostly depends on the product at hand. 

Dilute with a carrier oil

If you use pure tea tree oil, dilute it with a carrier oil or moisturizer before applying it to the skin. On its own, tea tree oil can be quite irritating, and mixing it with non-comedogenic oils (think hempseed, grapeseed, or sweet almond) can reduce the risk of irritation. Preferably, use an unfiltered and undiluted product with no fillers or artificial ingredients added.

Just mix a few drops of tea tree oil with an equal amount of carrier oil and apply the mixture to your skin: you can use it all over your face or as a spot acne treatment.

Add it to your moisturizer

My favorite way to use tea tree oil to boost my skincare routine is to add it to my daily moisturizer. Just pour 4-5 drops of pure tea tree oil into your moisturizer and apply it to your entire face. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t add tea tree oil to a formula that contains benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, or other potent actives because you risk irritating your skin.

Do a face mask

You can also do a face mask with tea tree oil. There are plenty of DIY recipes, but I highly recommend the one with clay, honey, and aloe vera gel — it works great to detoxify and clarify the skin.

Mix one tablespoon of clay with a tablespoon of honey, add the gel from one aloe vera leaf, and finally, pour 3-4 drops of tea tree oil into the mixture. In this mask, honey and tea tree oil have antibacterial properties, so they work synergically to fight acne; clay purifies and sops up sebum, while aloe vera hydrates. Simple and effective.

Use skincare products with tea tree oil

Finally, to reap all the benefits of tea tree oil, you can use skincare products containing it. Pick a formula with a decent concentration of tea tree oil that contains other acne-fighting ingredients, too. For instance, salicylic acid and tea tree oil work well together to reduce breakouts, so if you have both in your product, you hit it big. Vitamin C, retinol, and willow bark extract also pair well with tea tree oil.

To be noted that tea tree oil is easily absorbed into plastics, so ideally, use products housed in glass bottles to minimize this effect. Also, tea tree oil is easily degraded by light and heat, so store your products in a cool dark place to keep the actives potent.

Here’s a list of some of the best skincare products containing tea tree oil:

To end

In the end, tea tree oil is not meant to replace your acne treatments, but to complement them. Nevertheless, if your skin reacts to salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, tea tree oil is a great alternative to keep pimples at bay.


Sources

Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.

References
  1. Kim HJ, Chen F, Wu C, Wang X, Chung HY, Jin Z. Evaluation of antioxidant activity of Australian tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) oil and its components. J Agric Food Chem, 2004. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15137824/
  2. Pazyar N, Yaghoobi R, Bagherani N, Kazerouni A. A review of applications of tea tree oil in dermatology. Int J Dermatol, 2013. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22998411/
  3. Carson CF, Hammer KA, Riley TV. Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) oil: a review of antimicrobial and other medicinal properties. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2006 Jan. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1360273/
  4. Bassett IB, Pannowitz DL, Barnetson RS. A comparative study of tea-tree oil versus benzoylperoxide in the treatment of acne. Med J Aust. 1990 Oct 15. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2145499/
  5. Nenoff P, Haustein UF, Brandt W. Antifungal activity of the essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree oil) against pathogenic fungi in vitro. Skin Pharmacol. 1996.
Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana is a sociologist and feminist with a shared passion for literature, psychology, and skincare, the combo that made her determined to start Women's Concepts. With over five years of experience in dermatological research, she has now become a certified skincare consultant keen to convince others of the importance of a diligent routine. Her close relationships with dermatologists around the globe, along with years of researching, analyzing studies, and hand-testing products on a daily basis, made Ana one of the best persons you can get advice from.
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