Tea tree oil has been used for thousands of years by Australian natives known as aborigines. In 1770, Captain James Cook, a British explorer and captain in the Royal Navy, landed in what would later become Sydney, Australia. In his explorations he came across the Melaleuca tree and instantly noticed its thick and sticky leaves produced an enticing aroma. He quickly learned from the natives that the leaves and the oil that could be produced from them were commonly used as a medicine for skin wounds, infections and burns.. They would apply a mixture of crushed tea leaves and animal fat directly to the skin and hold it in place using a mud pack. After witnessing the healing properties of tea tree oil, Captain Cook and his crew brewed a tea using the leaves and the term tea tree was coined. The crew drank it to prevent scurvy, a disease that plagued sailors at the time when they were deprived of vitamin C.
There are legends that speak of lakes witnessed by the explorers that were surrounded by tea trees. The leaves would fall into the lake and create a body of water that was saturated with tea tree oil. The aboriginal natives would then soak in these medical baths that would heal any skin infection. The aborigines that populate Australia today still use tea tree leaves just like their ancestors as a natural medicine.
The natives also showed Captain Cook other uses for the tea tree leaves. They placed the leaves directly over a fire. Anyone suffering from a cough would then inhale the steam and healing vapors. The leaves would also be constructed as a pillow for these patients who would breathe in the healing vapors while they slept. The tea tree leaves were also soaked in water and then used as an anti-bacterial skin wash or gargle for sore throats. However, tea tree oil wasn’t introduced to the western world at this time.
Tea tree oil did not become popular again until the early 1920s when Dr. Arthur Penfold, an Australian government chemist, conducted research that exposed how highly antiseptic tea tree oil was when compared to standard solutions at the time. Thanks to Dr. Penfold’s discoveries, other studies in Sydney and London followed and for the first time tea tree oil was receiving public recognition. During World War II, Australian soldiers were plagued by an outbreak of foot-fungus that left many of them hospitalized. After trying several different remedies, a medic from Australia remembered the healing power of tea tree oil and suggested it as a remedy. Within a few days, most of the soldier’s fungus had disappeared. The trial was so promising that tea tree oil became a standard item in an Australian soldier’s first aid kit, especially if they were assigned to a subtropical region where infections could spread fast. They also used it as a natural bug repellent. Anyone who produced tea tree oil as a profession was excluded from the draft until there was enough tea tree oil available to be used as medication. Once penicillin and other similar antibiotics were discovered in the 1940s, tea tree oil took a back seat in the medical world as less costly and more easily produced options were available.
Tea tree oil was still used in the household though during the 1950s, mostly as a natural household cleaner. It was also used as a treatment for acne and head lice. Shampoos and other hair products were developed with tea tree oil as an ingredient. Toothpastes and rinses hit the market as well that contained tea tree oil.
Where Tea Tree Oil Is Produced
During the 1970s, mass production of tea tree oil began for the first time and become readily available for the public to purchase and experiment with. Once certain strains of bacteria displayed resistance to antibiotics, scientists once again began to explore the effects of tea tree oil as an alternative treatment for a variety of infections.
The Australian Tea Tree Oil Industry Association was established in 1986 in Australia as a non-profit organization dedicated to regulating all tea tree oil that was being manufactured for consumer use. Their purpose is to make sure that all the tea tree oil is pure and not diluted. They are also dedicated to ensuring that farmers and distributors uphold certain levels of environmental standards.
In 2007, the Melaleuca tree was introduced to Kenya as a new growing crop. Over 500 farmers have begun growing the trees on their farms to be used to make tea tree oil. While at one point production of tea tree oil exceeded demand, it is expected for the demand to rise as the oil’s properties become more common knowledge to the public.
Tea Tree Oil Today
Extensive and detailed research has been routinely performed on tea tree oil since the early 1990s at The University of Western Australia, lead by Associate Professor Tom Riley and other top scientists. These studies have provided many answers as to how effective tea tree oil is for certain conditions. They have focused on the scientific components of tea tree oil and its effects. Their findings have also opened up the possibilities of using tea tree oil as a major treatment for cancer and antibiotic resistant infections, such as MRSA.
Essential oils have gained popularity in more recent years as the public looks for more natural and chemical free ways of treating common ailments. Tea tree oil is one that is receiving a large amount of attention thanks to its uses as not only a topical medication but a way to safely clean household surfaces. While the past has shown that tea tree oil tends to have waves of popularity, new research may keep it as a front runner in the medical world for an indefinite number of years. For many researchers and avid tea tree oil users, the future use of tea tree oil is exciting and anticipated to grow in popularity.