The Magic of Melaleuca Tree Oil (Tea Tree Oil)

By Angela Tague in Natural Products

Tea tree oil, also known as melaleuca tree oil, is making a name for itself in the personal care industry. Everything from my shampoo to deodorant boasts the inclusion of this naturally derived, fragrant oil, but what is it exactly? Hint: It's not related to your go-to mug of Earl Grey tea. Here's everything you need to know about this ingredient.

Where Does Melaleuca Oil Come From?

I first learned about the fluffy, bush-like tea tree on a coastal field trip for my botany class in college. I was an exchange student in Australia—home of the tea tree—and experienced one variety of the foliage firsthand growing wild on a lovely beach outside of Melbourne.

Australia is home to more than 200 species of melaleucas, a few of which develop into tea trees, according to the Australian Government Department of Agriculture. The leaves of these plants contain essential oils that offer antibacterial, germicidal, and medicinal uses. Some varieties, such as the Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree), also produce a robust, warm scent that can be used as a flavoring or fragrance.

melaleuca flowering

How Is Melaleuca Oil Sourced?

The tea tree species of melaleucas provide the coveted oil commonly found in personal care products. As the Mayo Clinic explains, the leaves of this Australian tree are steamed to distill the essential oil.

But, what about the environmental impact of this process? The Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation (RIRDC) partners with Australian growers, researchers, and processors to ensure that the tea tree oil industry remains sustainable over time.

To keep tea tree oil production eco-friendly, profitable, and prosperous, the RIRDC supports forward-thinking, green farming practices. They work with producers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption, preserve and enhance soil fertility, and manage leaf waste.

For example, the spent melaleuca tree leaves can find a new purpose as garden mulch. Or, they're converted into biochar, a charcoal-like material created through a burning method devoid of contaminating fumes. When biochar is added to soil, it improves the overall quality by enhancing structure, water retention, regulation of nitrogen leaching, and microbial composition, according to the environmental nonprofit Regeneration International.

Rest assured, Tom's of Maine vets all the ingredients in their products to ensure they're sustainably produced, including tea tree oil.

Historical Uses of Tea Tree Oil

The Australian Tea Tree Industry Association describes how the oil has long been used for medicinal purposes because of its antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties.

Documentation shows that the indigenous people of Australia would crush the leaves of the tea tree to release the oil, then inhale the aroma to mitigate coughs and colds. They would also use the leaves to brew tea to soothe sore throats. Additionally, some would transform the leaves into a poultice and apply it directly to the skin to alleviate minor wounds and insect bites.

melaleuca tree leaves

Using Melaleuca Oil in Personal Care and Home Products

In modern society, tea tree oil is prevalent in eco-conscious personal care products and home cleaning supplies.

When it comes to deodorant and antiperspirant, Tom's of Maine uses tea tree oil as a fragrance. For example, naturally derived Melaleuca alternifolia leaf oil is used in the Tom's of Maine Tea Tree Long Lasting Deodorant that offers 24-hour odor protection.

If you look a little closer at the ingredient lists on the labels of your beauty products, you might learn that your favorite shampoo, lotion, facial moisturizer, or makeup contains tea tree oil, too.

Safety of Melaleuca Oil

Since 1959, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) has implemented an expert panel to review the safety of flavor ingredients as part of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. This program is referred to as GRAS, or generally recognized as safe.

Today, the FEMA GRAS list includes over 2,800 ingredients recognized as safe to use in the industry. On the official GRAS Flavoring Substances list, number 3902 is tea tree oil from Melaleuca alternifolia. The GRAS assessments gather scientific information on the pharmacology, metabolism, toxicology, and exposure to help manufacturers (and users) of products that contain the flavoring become more informed. In short, tea tree oil is considered safe to use as a flavoring or fragrance substance!

When choosing personal care products for you and your family, selecting formulas created with naturally derived ingredients is a great way to support an eco-friendly, sustainable lifestyle.

Are you looking to use more natural ingredients in your everyday routine? Explore the Ingredients from Nature board from @tomsofmaine on Pinterest to discover more uses of Earth-based substances!

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The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.

Why It's Good

The Earthy aroma of tea tree oil is a welcome addition to personal care products. Plus, it's natural and recognized as safe! As you choose more products with naturally derived ingredients, you can feel better about what you're putting on your body.