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Tea tree oil and acne: What you need to know

This broad-spectrum antimicrobial may reduce the occurrence of breakouts.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 7 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
woman applying moisturizing
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 7 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

If you have or ever have had acne, you’ve probably heard of ingredients whose names take you right back to chemistry class: things like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and tretinoin. But did you know some plant-based ingredients, such as tea tree oil, might also be effective in treating mild acne breakouts? 

Tea tree oil is no stranger to skincare—it’s been used for years to help curb breakouts and banish pimples, thanks to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Using tea tree oil for acne can be highly effective, but there are a few things to know before giving it a try. Most importantly, it needs to be diluted in a non-comedogenic oil before applying because it’s very potent. Here we’ll tell you everything you need to know about tea tree oil, how it works, and how to use it properly to get the most from its use as an acne treatment. 

What is tea tree oil?

Tea tree oil comes from the leaves of the tree of the same name, Melaleuca alternifolia, which is native to Australia. Commonly used in skincare and oral hygiene products, thanks to its well-established antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, it’s been researched extensively for its effectiveness in treating acne.¹ 

So, does tea tree oil actually clear acne? One study shows that it may,² and it might also help treat other skin conditions—such as seborrheic dermatitis—and accelerate wound healing.³ This is likely due to tea tree oil’s broad-spectrum antimicrobial effects that fight against bacterial, viral, fungal, and protozoal infections.⁴

How does tea tree oil work for acne?

Tea tree oil has natural anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. It works to kill acne-causing bacteria, and several studies have shown that it’s effective in treating mild-to-moderate acne.⁵ As with many topical acne treatments, it may take 2-3 months to see an improvement in acne, but you may get there with less risk of skin redness and irritation. 

As previously mentioned, there’s one caveat: You need to dilute it. Tea tree oil is an essential oil, and—like all essential oils—it’s highly concentrated. But once it’s diluted, most people can tolerate using tea tree oil on their face. At Curology, we recommend diluting one part tea tree oil with three parts non-comedogenic oil (like jojoba oil). Just avoid coconut oil or other pore-clogging oils. 

Pros and cons of tea tree oil

Tea tree oil, like most ingredients, has its pros and cons. It’s a broad-spectrum antimicrobial, and it can benefit the skin in many ways. Here’s what you need to know about the potential positives of this oil for skincare: 

  • Seborrheic dermatitis treatment: Similar to dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis makes skin appear red and/or greasy with white or yellowish crusty scales on its surface.⁶ One study found that daily use of a 5% tea tree oil shampoo reduced dandruff by 41% over four weeks.⁷

  • Accelerated wound healing: One small study demonstrated decreased healing time when the wound was treated with tea tree oil.⁸

  • Acne fighting: Some studies have shown that tea tree oil reduces the number of acne lesions in those who have mild to moderate acne.⁹ 

Even though it’s shown to be an excellent natural remedy, that doesn’t mean there aren’t possible tea tree oil side effects when applied to the skin. Like many topical ingredients, it may cause skin irritation in some people. Here are some potential drawbacks: 

  • Skin irritation: Tea tree oil can cause itching, redness, and swelling, particularly in people with sensitive skin. This is especially true if it is not properly diluted. Tea tree oil can be irritating if applied directly to the skin. 

  • Allergic or irritant contact dermatitis:¹⁰ Allergic contact dermatitis may result from an allergic reaction to tea tree oil. Irritant contact dermatitis is a consequence of skin irritation; though it can happen to anyone, it is more likely to occur in people with sensitive skin. If you have sensitive skin or concerns for allergy/irritation, you may want to try doing a skin patch test using diluted tea tree oil.

How to use tea tree oil for acne

As a highly concentrated essential oil, a little goes a long way. Some manufacturers will dilute the oil for you, but you can do it yourself, too. Make sure to purchase pure tea tree oil. That way, you know exactly what strength you’re putting on your skin.

In addition to dilution, here are more pro tips for using tea tree essential oil on your skin: 

  • Cleanse. Before applying tea tree oil, wash your face with a gentle cleanser. Pat dry with a soft cloth and allow it to air dry if your skin is still damp. 

  • Dilute. Combine 1-2 drops of tea tree oil with 3-6 drops of non-comedogenic carrier oil, such as jojoba oil. 

  • Apply. Use a cotton pad to dab the diluted oil on your blemishes and allow it to dry. 

  • Moisturize. Apply a non-comedogenic moisturizer to your face and neck. 

  • Repeat. Diluted tea tree oil may be mild enough to use morning and night, though use your best judgment based on how your skin responds. Add a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher to your morning routine to protect your skin from sun damage.

yellow retinol inside dropper

Tea tree oil products you can try at home

You can use tea tree oil to treat many skin conditions, and you can experience tea tree oil benefits through the use of many different products containing the ingredient. But not all products are created equal. That’s why we’ve vetted some of the best over-the-counter products for all skin types. Here’s our list:  

  • Briogeo B. Well Organic + Australian 100% Tea Tree Oil is pure tea tree oil. Simply dilute it with your favorite non-comedogenic facial oil and apply it as a spot treatment for blackheads and whiteheads. 

  • Baebody Tea Tree Cleansing Gel is a gentle face wash that combines tea tree oil, witch hazel, and willow bark to eliminate excess oil and leave your skin clear and balanced.

  • Dr. Jart+ Teatreetment Moisturizer uses tea tree oil as one of its active ingredients to target blemishes and rebalance the skin. The treatment lotion is packed with niacinamide, plant extracts, and hyaluronic acid. 

  • Éminence Clear Skin Probiotic Moisturizer is an ultra-light daily moisturizer that clears skin and minimizes clogged pores. Cucumber juice and tea tree oil work together to reduce inflammation, while probiotics gently exfoliate the skin. 

  • Curology Acne Body Wash uses salicylic acid—a gentle chemical exfoliator—and tea tree oil to treat acne. It’s gentle enough to use every day. 

Remember, just because a skincare product includes tea tree oil doesn’t mean it won’t contain other things known to clog pores. Be sure to check out our list of comedogenic ingredients to avoid in hair, makeup, and skincare products.

Get professional care from Curology

Natural ingredients, such as tea tree oil, can be effective in treating acne and other skin conditions, but they don’t replace professional guidance or prescription ingredients. Curology’s licensed dermatology providers can help determine the proper skincare routine and products for your unique needs. We help take the guesswork out of your skincare routine.

Our licensed dermatology providers work with you to examine your skin, assess your skincare goals, and provide custom treatment options.* They’ll prescribe a personalized prescription formula and can help recommend more products to round out your skincare routine. They’ll also be there to answer any skincare questions you may have. Get started on your journey toward healthier skin by signing up today.

FAQs

What is tea tree oil?

Tea tree oil comes from the leaves of the tree of the same name, Melaleuca alternifolia, which is native to Australia. Commonly used in skincare and oral hygiene products, thanks to its well-established antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, it’s been researched extensively for its effectiveness in treating acne. 

How does tea tree oil work for acne?

Tea tree oil has natural anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. It works to kill acne-causing bacteria, and several studies have shown that it’s effective in treating mild-to-moderate acne. As with many topical acne treatments, it may take 2-3 months to see an improvement in acne, but you may get there with less risk of skin redness and irritation.

How to use tea tree oil for acne?

As a highly concentrated essential oil, a little goes a long way. Some manufacturers will dilute the oil for you, but you can do it yourself, too. Make sure to purchase pure tea tree oil. That way, you know exactly what strength you’re putting on your skin.

In addition to dilution, here are more pro tips for using tea tree essential oil on your skin: 

  • Cleanse.

  • Dilute.

  • Apply.

  • Moisturize. 

  • Repeat.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Hammer, K.A. Treatment of acne with tea tree oil (melaleuca) products: A review of efficacy, tolerability, and potential modes of action. International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents. (2015).

  2. Ahmad S., et al. A review on efficacy and tolerability of tea tree oil for acne. Journal of Drug Delivery and Therapeutics. (2019).

  3. Pazyar, N., et al. A review of applications of tea tree oil in dermatology. International Journal of Dermatology. (2012 September 12).

  4. Carson, C.F., et al. Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) Oil: a Review of Antimicrobial and Other Medicinal Properties. American Society for Microbiology. (2006 January 1).

  5. Hammer, K.A. Treatment of acne with tea tree oil (melaleuca) products: A review of efficacy, tolerability, and potential modes of action. International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents. Ibid.

  6. American Academy of Dermatology. Seborrheic Dermatitis: Overview. (n.d.).Yes

  7. Satchell, A.C., et al. Treatment of dandruff with 5% tea tree oil shampoo. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (December 2002).

  8. Chin, K.B., et al. The Effect of Tea Tree Oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) on Wound Healing Using a Dressing Model. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. (2013 December).

  9. Hammer, K.A. Treatment of acne with tea tree oil (melaleuca) products: A review of efficacy, tolerability, and potential modes of action. International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents. Ibid.

  10. Knight, T.E. and Hausen, B.M. Melaleuca oil (tea tree oil) dermatitis. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (1994 March 1).

Laura Phelan is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Benedictine University and went on to get her post-master’s certificate as a Family Nurse Practitioner at the University of Cincinnati.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary. 

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Image of Laura Phelan Nurse Practitioner

Laura Phelan, NP-C

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