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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
With so many natural remedies floating around the internet today, it can be hard to keep track. Depending on which blogs you land on, you might find purported scalp treatments that use everything from castor oil to coconut oil to aromatherapy. You might have even read about something called melaleuca alternifolia, better known as tea tree oil.
Many claim tea tree oil can improve the health of your hair follicles, aid in hydration for dry scalp and heal sensitive skin. But are the nourishing, anti-flaking, reduced-itchiness claims true or just some homeopathic nonsense?
Turns out, this one may have more than one foot in real science. Still, like many hair product ingredients, the effects of tea tree oil may be a mystery to non-nerds.
Below, we’ll share our nerd wisdom on this natural path to a healthy scalp, including what it is, what science says this hair oil can do and how to use it. We’ll also go over some alternatives in case you want FDA-backed options too.
Tea tree oil is an oil that comes from, well…tea trees — specifically the kind native to Australia, where it’s traditionally used by the Aboriginal people.
Also known as melaleuca oil, tea tree oil is steam-distilled from the plant’s leaves. It moved from solely indigenous medicine a century ago to a product used worldwide as an essential oil.
You may have seen it in tea tree oil shampoos or sold as an essential oil, but tea tree oil was used long before it made it to modern store shelves. And it’s big business — the global tea tree market is tens of millions of dollars.
So, what’s so great about this dermatology and hair product? Well, some research has it to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties with the potential to help with everything from soothing dryness to fighting gingivitis.
You read that right: When used in a mouthwash, tea tree oil has been shown to reduce oral bacteria and gum bleeding in people with gum disease.
Okay, you’re probably wondering, but what do my gums have to do with my hair? Nothing, actually. For your hair, tea tree oil does other things — several of them, according to a few studies.
We’ll be blunt: While you’ll find tea tree oil in shampoos, conditioners and various hair treatments, the scientific evidence connecting it to hair and scalp benefits is somewhat limited. A half-dozen studies and reviews paint a very unclear picture of how it works, but studies do show cautiously optimistic results.
Here’s what we know tea tree oil might help with (so far).
Let’s start with the big stuff: dandruff treatments — one of the more widely accepted uses for tea tree oil. In one study, participants using shampoo containing 5 percent tea tree oil were evaluated over a one-month period.
Compared with a placebo (shampoo without tea tree oil), those using the oil-infused shampoo showed improvements in dandruff severity, itchy scalp and greasiness.
Is this conclusive evidence that it’s the best treatment for dandruff? Hardly. But it’s a good sign that it probably can’t hurt as part of an anti-dandruff routine.
Lice may not be a condition, but we’re pretty sure everyone agrees lice-ridden locks aren’t what we’d consider healthy hair.
Tea tree oil may moonlight as a head lice treatment, but the studies are modest.
One study it particularly effective when combined with another natural substance called nerolidol, while found it may be effective on head lice when paired with lavender oil.
In other words, you may need a whole homeopathic arsenal to get worthwhile results.
What about hair loss? Well, similarly modest results have been found here.
In the treatment of hair loss caused by androgenic alopecia, links tea tree oil to a possibly effective solution — but not necessarily on its own.
According to the research, the highly effective FDA-approved hair loss treatment minoxidil might be even more effective in promoting hair growth when combined with two things: diclofenac (a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) and tea tree oil.
The small study on just 32 men found the combination treatment to be “significantly superior” to minoxidil alone and a placebo.
Everyone wants one singular treatment, but add-ons are always welcome, right?
If you have conditions like seborrheic dermatitis or other fungal or microbial infections on your scalp, tea tree oil might help resolve those problems.
Traditionally, Aboriginal people tea tree oil to treat wounds and speed up healing, and some modern evidence supports the tradition.
Its antimicrobial properties have shown promise in combating other well-known infectious bacteria, E. coli, staph and strains of strep. Tea tree oil’s antifungal properties are responsible for its effectiveness in products made for the treatment of athlete’s foot, ringworm and other fungal infections.
In one laboratory study that the effectiveness of tea tree oil against dozens of fungal strains, researchers found it to inhibit the growth of all strains tested. Several human studies have affirmed its effectiveness against fungi.
Acne on the hairline? Breakouts taking attention from your beautiful, healthy hair? Tea tree oil may help.
The best news is that the acne benefits of tea tree oil are relatively widely accepted. In of 60 patients with mild to moderate acne treated with 5 percent topical tea tree oil, the solution offered significant improvement over a placebo in terms of total acne lesions and acne severity index.
Your hair may not have many pimples, but if you’re using a topical product on one, why not use it on the other?
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So you’ve decided to try tea tree oil. That’s cool — tea tree oil is safe as a topical treatment with risk of irritation.
Generally speaking, there are no officially agreed-upon directions for a tea tree oil product. Whether it’s a skincare product, shampoo or something else entirely, the best advice we can give you is this:
Follow the manufacturer’s directions.
Do a patch test first — apply just a few drops of tea tree oil to determine how your skin will react.
Apply as directed in terms of dose and frequency.
Discontinue use if you notice signs of allergic reaction or adverse effects.
While the side effects are considered mild, some people may experience irritation or allergic reactions.
And although tea tree oil has shown to be effective in the possible treatment of oral conditions like gingivitis, it is toxic if swallowed. Also, tea tree oil poisoning has been reported in both children and adults, so you’ll want to buy a specifically formulated product when using it as a mouthwash.
There are a number of better-proven, more effective ways to protect your hair follicles than natural remedies like tea tree oil:
Minoxidil. Minoxidil (in the form of minoxidil foam or minoxidil solution) is a topical medication that promotes hair growth by increasing blood flow to your hair follicles. An oral version is also available.
Medicated topical spray. You might consider a combination application of FDA-approved medications, like our topical finasteride & minoxidil spray.
Hair loss shampoo. Hair loss shampoo can treat scalp conditions like dandruff and some forms of hair loss. Our dandruff detox shampoo (with 1% pyrithione zinc and salicylic acid) is a great place to start.
Generic for Rogaine®, this FDA-approved over-the-counter version of topical minoxidil is used for regrowth on the crown of the head.
This is the FDA-approved dynamic duo. When used together, men saw better results in clinical trials compared to using either alone.
If you’re looking for something effective but don’t want too many steps in your routine, this once-a-day pill could be right for you.
Clinically proven to regrow hair in 3-6 months, no pills required.
It can sometimes feel like the produce and hygiene aisles are merging. Products made from rosemary oil, jojoba oil and other “natural remedies” fill the shelves these days — and tea tree oil is right up there with them.
Should you be filling your shopping cart with tea tree oil? Here’s the takeaway:
Tea tree oil, also known as melaleuca oil, originated in Australia, where it was traditionally used by the Aboriginal people.
There’s scientific evidence that tea tree oil has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and it might be effective in treating dandruff and head lice.
Limited research suggests it could assist in the effectiveness of minoxidil in the treatment of hair loss.
Though it’s safe to use pure tea tree essential oil, numerous products on the market contain lower concentrations of tea tree oil, such as moisturizers, gels and liquids.