The Tea Tree Alternative

John McIlwraith

The following article is reproduced from "UNIVIEW" (published by the University of Western Australia), May 1994 issue.

The oil of the humble tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), one of the great survivors in Australia's harsh climate, is widely used as a medication, although there have been few proper clinical trials to confirm its efficacy.

The only place M.alternifolia occurs naturally is in a relatively small area of northern New South Wales. But there are already a number of plantations producing about 100 tonnes of tea tree oil annually, which is sold to companies that include it in a wide range of products - shampoos, hair conditioners, soap, cream, gel, lotions, even toothpaste. It is also included in liniments, foot balms, insect repellents and germicides.

University of Western Australia microbiologist Dr Tom Riley, and PhD student Christina Carson have found that the oil will kill many bacteria present in a number of common infections, including some of the staphylococcus and streptococcus bacteria. There are also unconfirmed reports that it is effective against cold sores and herpes. Like eucalyptus oil, tea tree oil should not be administered orally.

Dr Riley is confident that tea tree oil is effective as an antiseptic and disinfectant, useful for minor cuts and abrasions, and as it penetrates the skin it is effective for complaints such as acne. It is also believed to have been successfully employed in treating vaginal infections.

Tea tree oil has been used on a small scale as a medication ever since European settlement more than two centuries ago. Aborigines used it - in a non-processed form - as a treatment for headaches, other pain, colds and as an insect repellent.

"It is not surprising that the oil is sold from the plantations.......for more than $60 per kilogram."

The beneficial components of tea tree oil - which vary considerably from one batch of oil to another - and the best way in which they can be applied are still not fully understood. If it becomes increasingly popular, thousands of trees will be needed because they have a very low yield of oil - only one to two percent by weight of the leaves and branches subjected to a distillation process. It is not surprising that the oil is sold from the plantations in Queensland and NSW to the pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies for more than $60 per kilogram.

Until recently it was little more than a cottage industry, with the tree harvested by hand and then distilled in simple stills. Recent mechanisation (possibly because improvements in plants have enabled them to be grown on land other than swampy, low-lying areas) opens the way for a big increase in production.

There has been a resurgence of interest in tea tree oil in recent years, as part of the quest for alternative medicines. Much of Australia's production goes to the United States, where formal regulatory approvals are being sought.

Dr Riley believes that additional research is needed before tea tree oil is recognised internationally as a therapeutic agent. However he is also confident that further research and development will generate products formulated for specific uses.

‘It has a good future, if managed properly,’ he says. ‘Some manufacturers claim it is useful for every type of complaint, making it sound a bit like snake oil. But with proper research we can confirm its great value for specific treatments - and we should be doing this now, as part of a plan to ensure Australia does not lose control of the tea tree oil industry.’

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