melaleuca alternifolia (30558)

Tea tree oil is an essential oil distilled from melaleuca alternifolia, which is native to Australia and New Zealand. It is now grown in California as well. It has been shown to have antifungal and antibacterial properties and has shown promise as an antiviral, especially against the strep throat virus. There have been studies that indicate it may be useful not only for athlete's foot and other fungal skin conditions, but also as a treatment for acne, dandruff and head lice. It's a popular ingredient in toothpastes and mouthwashes and it reputed to help against gingivitis and plaque. Tea tree oil is often used in steam treatments for sinus congestion and as an ingredient in diffusors to treat mold and other airborne pathogens.

Natural cleaning products often contain tea tree oil as well. The diluted oil is used as a surface disinfectant, laundry booster, and to help combat and prevent mold on shower walls, shower curtains and fabrics. It is also a common ingredient in natural hand sanitizers and disinfectant sprays used to clean gym equipment and yoga mats.

The plant was given its common name by an English explorer because the leaves were used to make an herbal tea. Later the leaves were also used in combination with spruce leaves to make beer.

By the time the English arrived in Australia, the indigenous Bundjalung had been treating cuts and burns with the crushed leaves of the tea tree plant for centuries. In the 18th century they taught European settlers how to use the leaves as a poultice, and it became a popular remedy in the 19th century. In the 1920s, chemist Arthur Penfold began to study tea tree leaves. He found they were more than ten times more effective against bacteria than the most common antiseptic at the time, carbolic acid. The oil began to be commercially produced and its use spread to other countries.

Tea tree oil was considered an essential part of the first aid kits of Australian soldiers during World War II. It was valuable not only for its usefulness in treating wounds but also to combat the widespread problem of foot fungus. It was also used as an insect repellant.

After the development of modern antibiotics, the use of tea tree oil declined, but in recent decades there has been a renewed interest as natural remedies have become popular again, and as interest in less toxic cleaning products has increased.

Medical doctors in France and Australia are permitted to prescribe essential oil treatments internally but the oil is generally used externally or inhaled.