Bundjalung Aborigines who historically resided in what is now known as New South Wales, Australia would pick the leaves from the tea tree plant, break them (like aloe leaves.) Then, to heal burns, cuts, and insect bites they would rub the leaves over their skin. They also ground the leaves into a fine paste as wound dressing. Those crushed leaves were also applied over the body as an insect repellant. They taught Captain Cook how to boil the leaves to create a spiced tea, so Cook called the plant a “tea tree.”
In the early 1990s scientists in the University of Western Australia’s School of Biomedical, Biomolecular and Chemical Sciences began a study of essential tea tree oil. Their purpose was to investigate and verify the medicinal properties of tea tree oil, especially the oil’s antimicrobial benefits. Tea tree oil has demonstrated its wide spectrum of ability in healing bacterial, fungal, and viral infections in the laboratory. These researchers have since advocated its acceptance as a topical antimicrobial agent.
Tea tree oil is produced by steam distilling the leaves of the Australian Melaleuca alternifolia. The M. alternifolia is a plant species which grows only in Australia and is native to Northern New South Wales. The plant oil contains more than 100 separate components. These are mostly monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, and their alcohol forms. Tea tree oil is comprised of at least 30% terpinen-4-ol which causes most of its antimicrobial activity. This component, with specific levels of 13 others, are required for tea tree oil to meet the International Standard for Oil of Melaleuca.
Tea tree oil has proven effective in treating skin infections. Whether the cause of the infection is bacterial, fungal or viral, the oil works to heal it. Although it provides strong pharmaceutical medication, tea tree oil doesn’t show dangerous side effects. This pale yellow or colorless oil smells similar to eucalyptus. Although it contains more than 100 compounds, so far only 79 have been specifically identified. Some of these compounds have been found nowhere else in nature.
Each batch of tea tree oil is checked by sampling the quantity of two main compounds: cineole must be less than 15% because it can become caustic to skin in higher percentages, and terpinen-4-ol needs to be 30% or greater for good quality oil. Although these two compounds are the ones measured to verify the oil‘s quality. However, its efficacious treatment of bacterial, fungal, and viral infection is actually produced by a combination of multiple compounds.
Harvesting the leaves from tea trees isn’t easy. They grow in swamps infested with snakes and insects. Machinery won’t work under those conditions, so the leaves must be cut by hand. Workers use machetes to cut suckers off the stumps and then use a cane knife to strip the leaves from the branches. The tea trees’ growth appears to actually increase when regularly cropped. No damage is done to the trees or the surrounding ecosystem because machinery can’t be used. The leaves are then placed in a steam distiller on racks. Oil is drawn from the leaves, floating on top of the water in collection tanks. The tea tree oil goes through a filtration process before it is poured into a container. As the oil has gained in reputation and popularity, tea tree plantations have been established where the product is grown organically.
Tea tree oil is efficacious in various dilution in treating abrasions, minor cuts, acne, arthritis, asthma, athletes foot, bladder infections, bronchial congestion, minor burns, chapped lips, rash from chicken pox, dandruff, dry skin, earaches, eczema, head colds, lice, herpes lesions, warts, hives, shingles, etc. Tea tree oil may be diluted with olive oil and rubbed onto an irritated or inflamed site as in the case of arthritis or gout. Added to bath water, it soothes the entire skin area. A few drops placed on a hot washcloth and held over the nose to breathe through alleviates symptoms of head colds, asthma, and bronchitis.
The popularity of natural treatments for health problems is once again gaining momentum. In past history, before “modern” medicine, natural medicine was the only treatment available. Over the centuries native peoples found many plants which effectively treated various illnesses. Today, with the problems that have risen from overuse of antibiotics and other medications, and the side effects caused by the use of many of these, the old is becoming new again. Due to the wide spectrum of viral, microbial, and fungal pathogens against which tea tree oil is effective, its use is becoming more widely established.
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