Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/07/2020
Choosing hair products — especially when you’re in front of a store shelf full of them — is generally an exercise in reading and smelling.
Because it absolutely has to smell good, but you also want it to leave you with great hair consistently.
When it comes to products with tea tree oil, the smell is fresh and clean. It’s a little reminiscent of peppermint or eucalyptus, and can be found in all sorts of hair care products.
But like many hair product ingredients, the effects of tea tree oil may be a mystery to you.
Tea tree oil, also known as melaleuca oil, originated in Australia where it was traditionally used by the Aboriginal people.
There is scientific evidence that tea tree oil has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.
Tea tree oil may be effective in the treatment of dandruff and head lice.
Limited research suggests it could assist in the effectiveness of minoxidil in the treatment of hair loss.
Other potential uses of tea tree oil include: gingivitis treatment, infection control, and fungal treatments.
You may have seen it in tea tree oil shampoos or sold as an essential oil, but tea tree oil has been used long before it made it to modern store shelves.
Also known as melaleuca oil, tea tree oil is derived from the tea tree, native to Australia and traditionally used by the Aboriginal people there.
It moved from solely indigenous medicine to a product shared worldwide after a survey in the 1920s pointed to it as an essential oil with potential economic benefits for Australia.
Now, the global tea tree market is worth tens of millions of dollars.
Tea tree oil has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, all believed to play a role in its benefits.
It is steam distilled from the plants’ leaves and then used all around the world in health and beauty products.
You can get an idea of the reported benefits of tea tree oil from looking at the products it’s in.
You’ll find it in shampoo, where it’s widely accepted that it helps fight dandruff.
You’ll also find it in anti-fungal treatments, as it’s known to combat athlete's foot and other nail fungus.
And you can find it in acne treatment products. These uses are some of the most widely researched and accepted benefits of tea tree oil, but there are potentially others.
Antimicrobial or infection-fighting. Traditionally, Aboriginie people used tea tree oil to treat wounds and speed healing.
There is some modern evidence that the oil can be useful in fighting infections on human skin, too.
The oil may even be effective in treating antibiotic resistant infections (or “super bugs”) such as MRSA.
It has shown promise in combating other well-known bacterial strains including E. coli, staph and strains of “strep.”
And while there is anecdotal evidence that using tea tree oil in aerosols can help fight hospital-acquired infections.
Anti-fungal. Tea tree oil’s anti-fungal properties are responsible for its effectiveness in products made for the treatment of athlete’s foot, ringworm, and other fungal infections.
In one laboratory study that tested the effectiveness of tea tree oil against dozens of different fungal strains, researchers found it to inhibit growth of all of the strains tested. Several human studies have affirmed it’s effectiveness against fungi.
Acne. The acne benefits of tea tree oil are relatively widely accepted. In one study of 60 patients with mild to moderate acne who were treated with five percent topical tea tree oil, those treated with tea tree oil experienced a significant improvement over placebo in terms of total acne lesions and acne severity index.
Oral health. There is some evidence that tea tree oil can be effective in fighting gingivitis. When used in a mouthwash, tea tree oil has been shown to reduce oral bacteria and gum bleeding in people with gum disease.
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While you will find tea tree oil in shampoos, conditioners and various hair treatments, the scientific evidence connecting it to hair and scalp benefits is somewhat limited.
That said, its effectiveness in the treatment of fungal and bacterial infections may help heal an unhealthy scalp. In addition, here’s what we know about tea tree oil and specific hair/scalp conditions:
Dandruff. One of the more widely accepted uses for tea tree oil is in the treatment of dandruff. In one study, a shampoo containing five percent tea tree oil was evaluated in study subjects over a period of one month.
Compared with a placebo (a shampoo not containing tea tree oil), those using the oil-shampoo showed improvements in dandruff severity, itchy scalp, and greasiness.
Head lice. Somewhat related to your hair health, tea tree oil is known to be effective in the treatment of head lice.
One study found it to be particularly effective when combined with another essential oil called nerolidol, while another found it may be effective on head lice when paired with lavender oil.
Hair loss/androgenic alopecia. In the treatment of hair loss caused by androgenic alopecia, there is one study that links tea tree oil to a possibly effective solution.
According to the research, the traditional (and highly effective) hair loss treatment minoxidil may be more effective on hair growth when combined with two things: diclofenac (an anti-inflammatory) and tea tree oil.
The small study on just 32 men found the combination treatment to be “significantly superior” to minoxidil alone and a placebo.
Tea tree oil is safe as a topical treatment. You can apply the essential oil directly to your skin, with little risk of irritation.
Still, some people may experience irritation or allergic reactions. It’s best to do a patch test — applying just a few drops of tea tree oil to a small patch of skin to determine how your skin will react.
Though tea tree oil has been shown effective in the possible treatment of oral conditions like gingivitis, it is toxic if swallowed.
In both children and adults, tea tree oil poisoning has been reported.
If you’re motivated to try tea tree oil in a mouthwash, you may be better off purchasing a product formulated specifically for this purpose.
Though it’s safe to use pure tea tree essential oil, there are numerous products on the market containing tea tree oil already. Things like moisturizers, gels, liquids and more.