Elmer, NJ dermatologist Ingrid Warmuth, MD has been seeing a trend of late amongst her millennial patients. It’s not necessarily innovative or ground-breaking but, instead, is best described as a “back to basics” approach—with one ingredient being particularly popular.
“I find my millennial population of acne patients are really into using tea tree oil at the moment because it’s more natural and ‘holistic,’ she says. “Even if I prescribe mild acne topicals, tea tree oil is generally safe to be combined [with them] and can be continued in their regimen.”
Dr. Warmuth especially loves the ingredient for its ability to reduce redness in mild acne scarring and for its antibacterial properties to treat breakouts and prevent new ones. “I’ve found it to have a nice smell and generally light, non-greasy finish on skin.”
Team Tea Tree Oil also counts Mellville, NY dermatologist Kally Papantoniou, MD as a member; she likes it for its ability to act as a “healthy natural alternative or as an adjunct to the treatment of so many skin conditions,” including nail fungus and scalp dandruff.
“Tea tree oil contains natural antifungal and antibacterial properties, which makes it very useful,” Dr. Papantoniou explains, but warns that if you’re going the super natural route—i.e., buying a vial of essential oil as opposed to looking for the ingredient in skin care—it’s smart to know how to use it properly.
Her tip: “The important thing to know is to dilute several drops into a carrier oil when applying it to delicate areas on the body such as the face, because it can be irritating. For nail fungus, I recommend applying two-to-three drops undiluted and twice daily for best results.”
Coral Gables, FL dermatologist Dr. Janice Lima-Maribona also likes tea tree oil for its antibacterial benefits, but advises with similar caution when it comes to application. “I think it’s a great antibacterial, especially in products like hand sanitizers. For acne, unfortunately, it can be tricky as it shouldn’t be applied directly on to the skin. A carrier oil [to be applied with it] is essential to avoid a chemical burn.”
Besides burns, there is also an allergy risk, warns Laguna Hills, CA dermatologist Jennifer Channual, MD. “I love the smell of tea tree oil and some people use it as an antifungal treatment. However, I don’t recommend it because it contains limonene, which is an allergen and can cause blistering allergic reactions like poison ivy. There are other, safer alternative options for treatment that won’t cause skin irritation.”
New Orleans dermatologist Skylar Souyoul, MD says for that same reason, she is flat-out not a fan. “It can cause irritation and a small percentage of the population can develop an allergy to it.” Oklahoma City dermatologist Kimberly Jerdan, MD agrees: “While it may initially be good for acne and oily skin, it can actually cause a different skin reaction or problem. I am always hesitant to recommend this for patients and make them aware of the potential allergy or other side effects.”
Aiken, SC dermatologist Lauren Ploch, MD also thinks tea tree oil is a miss—but for different reasons. “Tea tree oil has estrogenic and anti-androgenic properties. It can cause gynecomastia [breast growth] in boys. Unfortunately, I think this is just the tip of the iceberg of the hormonal effects of ‘essential’ oils,” she says. “Natural isn’t always better.”
Rutherford, NJ dermatologist Aanand Geria, MD concurs. “Certain chemicals in tea tree oil may mimic estrogen and inhibit testosterone. As such, the Endocrine Society has labeled tea tree oil as an ‘endocrine disruptor.’ Men should therefore think twice before using products containing tea tree oil and, for young boys, I recommend avoiding it altogether.”
Bottom line: Proceed with caution and see a pro, recommends New York dermatologist Julie Russak, MD. “Tea tree oil is definitely a popular go-to for treating acne, but mild and moderately severe acne require entirely different approaches,” she says, adding that there is no denying the ingredient has proven antimicrobial, antiseptic and antifungal properties, which are going to help lower bacteria levels in the skin and reduce inflammation. “However, in any case, tea tree oil is not recommended as a stand-alone treatment. I always advise seeing a professional first for a diagnosis before proceeding with a course of treatment.”