Cynical Trials – Tea Tree Oil and Me

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I thought that spots were a problem I could put to bed along with my teenage years, but lo and behold! Here I am, a 30-year-old woman with a zit. Not just a spot. A ZIT.

spot on philtrum

It’s squatting right on my philtrum – the ridges running from my nose to my top lip – and it really, really hurts! As the day goes on, it keeps building up more and more pressure, and I have to resist the urge to touch (or even worse, squeeze) the thing. Fortunately, my colleagues in Covance volunteer recruitment are much too polite to say anything. Maybe it doesn’t look as bad as it feels?

My worst fears are confirmed when I get home to my son, who immediately points to it and says ‘Mummy, have you hurt yourself?’. Nothing like the honesty of a 3 year old.

I’m not too worried, though. Having worked in skincare for several years before arriving at Covance, I have a go-to product which I rely on for just such emergencies – tea tree oil!

Not to be confused with the stuff of builders’ brews, tea tree oil comes from an Australian shrub, smells a little bit like Olbas Oil, and is sold on its antibacterial and antifungal properties. For many years, I’ve trusted it to kill the bacteria which bring me out in occasional spots, but I also like to know that I can add some to the bath in case of random itches and rashes. I even used it to try and clear out that icky bout of sinusitis I had a few years back, using a bowl of hot water as a makeshift steam inhaler.

So, when I dab it with a tea-tree soaked cotton bud, I am pretty confident that my spot is history.

distillation essential oilBut then again… I have to wonder if I’m being a little too credulous? Sure, it has worked for me in the past – or at least, I believe it has – but if it’s really so effective, then why are we still developing antibiotics and anti-fungal drugs at Covance? Perhaps my faith in this essential oil is just the placebo effect at work?

I really hope this isn’t true, so before too long I’m on the internet searching for some solid evidence of tea tree’s credentials. Both Web MD and the NHS recognise that tea tree ‘may’ have antibacterial or anti-fungal properties. ‘May’ have. Why the uncertainty?

Digging deeper, I learn that the oil has shown promising bug-fighting abilities in vitro, but the evidence gathered so far is not strong enough to warrant the huge expense of clinical testing. One small review from the US found that 12 months of treatment with tea tree oil cured a fungal nail infection in 18% of participants. From my standpoint, this looks fairly inconclusive. While 18% is better than 0%, it’s not exactly miraculous.

Clinically, my most trusted remedy is in limbo.

But wow, that doesn’t stop its enthusiasts from singing its praises! I stumble across a blog listing ’20 Amazing uses for Tea Tree Oil’, and I am staggered that the author recommends oil pulling with a mixture of tea tree oil and water, or using it to make your own toothpaste. Firstly – yuck! It’s pungent stuff, and I can only imagine how awful it must taste. Secondly, no one should know how it tastes because like all essential oils it is toxic if ingested, and should never be used orally!

essential oil tubesNow I’m wishing tea tree oil could be clinically tested, so that I’d know once and for all whether it actually works and so that it could be labelled with proper guidelines for usage rather than these potentially harmful old-wives-tales being disseminated.

The next morning, I wake to find that my ‘zit’ has calmed right down and dried right out. It’s a shadow of its former self. Would it have dried out overnight without the tea tree? Maybe. It’s hard for me to say because it has been years since I went to bed with a spot and didn’t apply some. And guess what? I’ll carry on doing it, because I’m happy with the results, I’m not poisoning myself by taking it orally, and science has yet to prove that it doesn’t work. Call me superstitious if you like!

Have you ever tried using tea tree oil medicinally? I’d love to hear about it!