Tea tree oil for acne: How it works and how to use it

Galenolink, consultant, consultancy, plant extracts, essential oils, phytogenics, natural products, asia pacific, pharmaceutical, food, feed, phytogenic, animal health, cosmetics,

Tea tree essential oil (TTO) is one of the most widely used worldwide. It can be easily found in the form of pure essential oil in pharmacies, supermarkets, and specialty stores, and is used as an ingredient in many cosmetic products, due to its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. 

TTO is obtained by steam distillation of the leaves and terminal branches of the Australian native plant Melaleuca alternifolia. The yield of oil is 1-2% of the wet plant material weight. It contains circa 100 constituents and there are six chemotypes, but only one is used commercially, the terpinene-4-ol, which contains 30-40% of this constituent. Within the terpinene-4-ol chemotype, there is a great chemical variability, but it has not been shown to impact the biological effects of the oil, neither in vitro nor in vivo.

Aboriginal Australians traditionally used the leaves of the tea tree to treat skin and respiratory diseases. In the 18th century, sailors arriving in Australia dubbed the plant a “tea tree”, because they used the leaves to make an infusion that smelled of nutmeg. It was not until the early twentieth century that it was discovered that essential oil had an antimicrobial capacity 11 times higher than phenol, the golden standard of the time, and its use became popular. 

Currently, multiple scientific studies document the effectiveness of TTO in the treatment of wounds, insect bites, lice, fungal infections affecting bones, nails and skin, dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, chronic gingivitis and acne vulgaris.

TTO is considered safe, but it can cause contact dermatitis in some patients. Concentrations up to 10% have been tested with few side effects, but the continued use of such high concentrations is discouraged, and the direct application of the pure essential oil must be avoided. A concentration of 5% is recommended for shock treatments and below 2% for long-term treatments.

Like all essential oils, TTO is not soluble in water, which can make it difficult to formulate water-based products. In addition, it is volatile, and there are plastic materials that absorb it, so it is recommended to choose products that are well formulated and to be extremely careful with DIY recipes.

Mechanisms of action

TTO has a broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity, being effective against Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria, protozoa, fungi and virus. The mechanism of antibacterial action is through nonspecific damage to the bacterial cell membrane, which results in loss of intracellular material, inability to maintain homeostasis and inhibition of respiration. The main antibacterial activity is carried out by terpinen-4-ol and α-terpineol, but the other constituents of the oil also contribute to its effect.

TTO shows anti-inflammatory action, impacting a range of immune responses, and decreasing the production of free radicals.

Use of tea tree oil to treat acne

Acne vulgaris is a chronic skin disease that occurs when hair follicles are blocked with dead skin cells, bacteria, and oil (sebum). The blocked follicles cause lesions on the skin, including pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, papules, nodules, and cysts. The cause of the disease is multifactorial, including excessive sebum production, low desquamation rate of the follicular epithelium, inflammation, and the presence of the acne-causing bacteria Cutibacterium acnes.

Conventional antiacne treatments include the following mechanisms of action:

  1. Antibacterial activity, especially against Cutibacterium acnes (antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide)
  2. Antiinflammatory (retinoids)
  3. Normalization of the keratinization of the follicles (retinoids)
  4. Reduction of sebum production (retinoids)
  5. Keratolytic activity (beta hydroxy acids, in example salicylic acid)

TTO is present in many over the counter anti-acne products, and it is often chosen by patients who decide to self-treat. As explained above, TTO only works through mechanisms of action 1 and 2 (antibacterial and anti-inflammatory). However, several studies have shown that TTO reduces the number of lesions in patients with mild to moderate acne:

  • A study showed that TTO was better than placebo
  • Another study showed that TTO was equivalent to 5% benzoyl peroxide and 2% topical erythromycin
  • Another study showed that a face wash and a facial gel reduced lesion counts and were safe to use.
  • A study demonstrated that 5% TTO had similar effectiveness as 5% benzoyl peroxide, with less side effects, although the TTO treatment was slower.
  • An investigation showed the effectiveness of topical TTO alone and in combination with an oral Ayurvedic treatment.
  • Two studies demonstrated the effectiveness of TTO combined with other natural ingredients.

All these research studies show that TTO is an effective and safe alternative for the treatment of moderate acne, and that it satisfies the patient’s willingness to use natural products to solve common health problems. 

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Use of Saint John’s Wort in skin care

St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), also known as goat weed or enola weed, it’s a perennial flowering herb belonging to the Clusiaceae family. The name of the specie, “perforatum”, refers to small translucent spots that are evident when the leaves are held up to the light.

It has been used since Ancient Greece both externally as a macerated oil to treat wounds, burns, bruises, cuts, and pain and internally in infusion against stomach ulcers, neuralgia, anxiety, and insomnia.

The herb produces golden yellow flowers that, according to the traditional recipe, must be left to macerate for 40 days in olive oil and exposed to direct sunlight. Legend has it that the oil is more effective if flowers are collected on Saint John’s Day (June 24) and left to macerate until the day of the Saint’s beheading (August 29). The resulting oil is red, which is also associated with the color of St. John’s blood.

The red color of the oil is due to the presence of hypericin, an anthraquinone-derived pigment, belonging to the naphthodianthrones chemical family. Due to its chemical structure, with two oxygen atoms very close to each other sharing a mobile hydrogen atom, hypericin is very reactive to light.

The macerated oil contains other naphthodianthrones such as pseudohypericin, isophypericin, and protohypericin, together with other lipophilic compounds such as hyperforin (another photoreactive compound), adhyperforin and furohyperforin.

Hypericin and hyperforin are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Hyperforin stimulates the growth and differentiation of keratinocytes. St. John’s wort extract enhances collagen production and activates the fibroblasts that is responsible for wound closure.

Hyperforin has been shown to inhibit the growth of certain bacteria and viruses.

St. John’s wort extracts and macerated oils are used in skin care products to;

  • Prevent fine lines
  • Treat acne
  • Soothe reddened, burnt, or sunburned skin
  • Reduce itching, irritation, eczema, and inflammation
  • Treat psoriasis or dermatitis
  • Regenerate the skin in case of minor wounds, bruises, and dry skin
  • Promote recovery after a tattoo

Due to the high photoreactivity of hypericin and hyperforin, St. John’s wort extracts and macerated oils are mildly phototoxic. Phototoxicity is a chemically induced skin irritation that takes place when the skin is exposed to the sun. It is advised not to expose the skin to the sun after using skin care products containing St. John’s wort extracts or macerated oils and apply them preferably at night.

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Chicory root in pet foods

Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a herbaceous, perennial plant, more or less one meter tall, that belongs to the Asteraceae family.

It is a plant originating in the sub-Mediterranean region, although it is present in both Central Europe and America. It grows by the side of roads and fields and in dry, calcareous terrain. It blooms between May and September, the flowers are a very colorful blue and turn their heads to the sun, like sunflowers.

Chicory was already known and cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, more than 3000 years ago, who used it against liver diseases.

The main producing areas are France, Belgium, Germany and Spain. Currently, several varieties are cultivated that are quite different in appearance from the wild plant, and which are used for consumption as a vegetable, to produce coffee substitutes and for the extraction of inulin. The root of the Sativum variety contains up to 16% inulin. Chicory root extract is obtained by a hot water diffusion process and contains more than 95% inulin.

Inulin is an energy reserve carbohydrate present in the roots, tubers and rhizomes of more than 36,000 plant species. It is composed of linear chains of fructose, therefore it is a fructan.

Because of their chemical configuration, fructans cannot be hydrolyzed by the digestive systems of humans and many animals, so they pass through most of the digestive tract practically unchanged. When inulin reaches the large intestine, it serves as food for bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, which metabolize it, producing short-chain fatty acids, especially butyric acid.

This results in an increase in the number of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria (beneficial species) in the colon and a decrease in the number of harmful bacteria, such as E. coli or Clostridium spp. On the other hand, the production of short-chain fatty acids strengthens the immune system, increases the absorption of minerals and fats and boosts the endogenous production of vitamins by the gut flora.

When added to pet food, inulin:

  • Encourages the growth of beneficial microorganisms (lactobacilli and bifidobacteria) in the gut
  • Improves digestion
  • Helps cats and dogs that have difficulty in digesting fats
  • Improves the stool quality, relieving diarrhea and constipation
  • Eases the symptoms of chronic inflammatory diseases
  • Promotes a normal body weight
  • Reduces the risk of diabetes

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