The first Europeans to reach Australia made tea from the leaves of what then became known as the tea tree, which should not be confused with the common tea plant. For centuries before the Europeans arrived, native Australians were using the leaves of this tree as an antiseptic. Eventually the Europeans learned to use the leaves' volatile oil to treat cuts, abrasions, burns, insect bites and other minor skin ailments. Modern studies show that the strong germicidal activity of tea-tree oil is caused primarily by a single ingredient, terpineol. The oil, which smells like nutmeg, is extracted from the leaves by steam distillation. During World War II, tea-tree oil was added to machine oils to reduce infections in the hands of workers during metal fabrication. The oils of some species of Melaleuca may irritate the skin and are not used.
Applied externally for:
Over the counter:
Available as oil and also as an additive to health and beauty products such as toothpaste, soap, and shampoo.
Fresh leaves applied directly to wounds.