A common thread in the history of many healing plants is that they are often discovered by ancient tribes of people who used them to treat and prevent illness for thousands of years. So, too, begins the story of tea tree oil, an essential oil drawn from a shrub native to Australian coastal areas. In the 1770s, Captain James Cook observed aboriginal tribes on the northeast coast of New South Wales brewing a healing tea with the leaves of the melaleuca alternifolia plant. He coined the term “tea tree” after trying some himself and serving the concoction to his crew in hopes of preventing scurvy. The use of the pale yellow oil distilled from the leaves of the tea tree did not become common, however, until the 1920s, when a researcher named Arthur Penfold published papers on the oil’s antimicrobial activity. Penfold praised the oil’s medicinal properties, and in the years following, tea tree oil was used by Australian physicians to clean wounds and prevent infections. It was even given to Australian soldiers and sailors during World War II to treat infected wounds.
With the advent of antibiotics, though, the use of tea tree oil was largely discontinued. That is until the 1970s when there was a renewed interest in all things natural, especially plant-based remedies. In the last few decades, the scientific community has begun researching tea tree’s benefits and has published several articles that support the oil’s antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiseptic properties. Of course, there are antiseptics and disinfectants with greater antimicrobial activity than tea tree oil, but few are as natural.
It is the oil’s natural origins combined with its healing properties that make it such a perfect fit in spa services. Because of its antibacterial properties, tea tree oil can help destroy bacteria that are often the cause of breakouts and blemishes. “Tea tree oil is a great, naturally derived alternative to help with acne concerns in an effective yet non-aggressive way,” says Jamie Yee, director of education for Kate Somerville. In a study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1990, tea tree oil was found to be as effective as benzoyl peroxide at treating acne. While it may take longer for the anti-acne benefits to kick in, tea tree oil is also gentler and causes less itching, scaling, peeling, and irritation than benzoyl peroxide.
This milder action is perfect in services aimed at treating adult acne. Because adult acne is often caused by stress instead of an abundance of oil, drying ingredients found in teen-focused products can be too dehydrating. “In adults, breakouts can be very painful,” says Sarah Woodget-Athey, spa director at Facehaven Spa (Orlando, FL). “With the power of tea tree oil, we are able to reduce the inflammation and heal blemishes,” she says of the spa’s MediBac Face Treatment ($80, 60 minutes), which treats adult acne sufferers with tea tree oil-containing products from Dermalogica.
Often, tea tree oil is applied during the mask portion of a facial or in spot treatment products, as it is during the Professional Correcting Treatment ($140, 75 minutes) at L’Institut Sothys in New York City. At Lavish Salon and Day Spa (Riverside, CA), though, the benefits of tea tree oil are steamed into the skin using tea tree-infused towels during the Clear Skin Facial ($150, 60 minutes). Spa director Samantha Muruguia says the spa’s clients appreciate the acne-fighting abilities of tea tree oil, but says it’s the scent of the products used in the treatment that is most appealing. “Tea tree has a scent that soothes and relaxes the senses while benefitting the skin in so many ways,” says Muruguia.
That pleasing aroma—clean, fresh, and herbal—may partially explain why the ingredient is so popular in products used in men’s skincare services. The far-from-floral scent is great for male-marketed treatments, while tea tree’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory agents are perfect for treating skin pre- and post-shaving. According to dermatologist Howard Murad, M.D., tea tree oil can help ease the irritation and redness associated with razor bumps and prevent infections associated with ingrown hairs.
And it’s not just men who can benefit from tea tree oil in hair removal services. At Skin Deep Spatique (St. Petersburg, FL), the Brazilian Waxing Service ($40, 40 minutes; $60, 60 minutes) includes a cleanse with a pre-wax spray that includes tea tree oil as well as a post-wax application of a quenching tea tree spritz. “Tea tree fights bacteria, calms and soothes skin, and has a mild desensitizing action to reduce discomfort,” says owner Michelle Sheehan Foster, R.N.
While the antibacterial and antiseptic agents in tea tree oil make it perfect for use in facials, it’s the antifungal properties that are a benefit in hand and foot services. Studies have shown that tea tree oil administered topically is an effective treatment for nail disease. Additionally, the refreshing aroma and the oil’s deodorizing characteristics also mean it functions well for the feet. At Island House Spa at Longboat Key Club & Resort (Sarasota, FL), the Reflexology Foot Massage ($30, 25 minutes) incorporates tea tree oil because of its antifungal qualities, which aid in the health of skin and nails. “The type of client who requests this treatment is often very athletic and participates in sports such as tennis, golf, running, and bicycling, all of which can be very hard on the feet,” says Kristi Bonsack, director of wellness. The antifungal properties of tea tree oil can also help treat dandruff, making the oil a great addition in scalp services and head massages aimed at treating flaky scalps.
Many herbalists claim tea tree oil possesses detoxifying properties. Some proponents even claim it can boost the immune system, as well as a sluggish lymph system. While there is currently little scientific evidence to support these claims, many spas put tea tree oil to the test themselves each day in their detoxifying treatments. For example, Ole Henriksen Face/Body Spa (Los Angeles) uses tea tree oil during the soaking step of the Four Step Body Indulgence ($130, 55 minutes). “For many years, we have done a detox soak where we add sea salt, rosemary, and tea tree oil extracts to the water,” says founder Ole Henriksen.
Tea tree essential oil can be used on almost all skin types. It’s even one of the few essential oils that can be applied topically at its full, undiluted strength. Yet a small number of people—especially those with extremely sensitive skin—may experience some irritation. Tea tree oil is considered toxic if ingested, so it must never be taken internally. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should also avoid tea tree oil, as there have been no studies confirming its safety.
To boost your clients’ awareness of the power of tea tree oil, try advertising services for the feet or those aimed at detoxifying at local gyms. You could also offer a discount on at-home acne-fighters in conjunction with any deep cleansing facial. After all, delivering results your clients can see—at the spa and at home—is a surefire way to keep them coming back for more.—Megan O’Neill