James Srowe

Technical Consultancy Services Pty Ltd, Rockdale NSW, Australia


The use of tea tree oil in Australia spans many centuries. There is evidence to show that the leaves have been used by aborigines for thousands of years for a variety of ailments. When Australia was discovered by the British, log book entries show the leaves were used as an infusion or tea in an attempt to control the scurvy from which the first fleet suffered and hence the name tea tree oil. Unfortunately Melaleuca leaves contain no vitamin C but the name remained. In the 1920's scientists became aware of its antiseptic properties and it was issued to Australian Army personnel during the second world war. With the discovery of antibiotics its use declined until recently. It has now been rediscovered as an effective natural antiseptic with a wide variety of uses in the pharmaceutical and personal care industry.


Tea tree oil is a natural product, has a broad spectrum of activity and is environmentally safe with a long history of use. It has excellent antiseptic and wound cleansing properties and a low incidence of skin irritation. These features make it a versatile ingredient in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, toiletries, pet care and household sanitation.

The oil consists of a complex mixture with over one hundred fractions identified, consisting of a mixture of monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes and terpene alcohols. The germicidal effect is mainly due to terpinen-4-ol although other compounds may act synergistically. Research indicates that the anti-microbial activity increases markedly as the terpinen-4-ol concentration increases up to 35%, then marginally to 40% concentration. No further increase in activity is observed at concentrations in excess of 40% terpinen-4-ol.

The Minimum Inhibitory Concentration (MIC) against commonly encountered gram positive and negative bacteria is typically in the range of 0.5-1.0%. Tea tree oil exerts its action by causing structural damage to the cell wall of the organism followed by denaturation of the cell contents. Unlike antibiotics, there is no evidence of genetically acquired immunity and the oil is effective in the presence of blood, pus, necrotic tissue and mucous discharge.


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