The potential side effects of tea tree oil on skin and through inhalation:
Tea tree oil is an essential oil that comes from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia plant, native to Australia. It has gained popularity in recent years as a natural antiseptic and antimicrobial agent, used topically for skin conditions and as a cleansing agent.
However, tea tree oil is very potent and can cause adverse reactions in some individuals if not used properly. This article explores the side effects of tea tree oil, particularly when used on the skin and inhaled.
Tea Tree Oil Side Effects on Skin
Dermal contact is the most common way tea tree oil is used. But inappropriate or excessive use carries risks:
Tea tree oil has the potential to irritate skin. Reactions may include:
Burning or stinging sensations
Irritation often results from using tea tree oil undiluted or in high concentrations. Always dilute it in a carrier oil before applying topically. Patch testing on a small area of skin can check for irritation before wider application. Avoid using if any irritation occurs.
Allergic Contact Dermatitis
Some people may develop an allergic rash in response to topical tea tree oil, known as allergic contact dermatitis. This manifests as red, itchy and inflamed skin. It occurs due to sensitization to components of tea tree oil. Allergy testing can confirm tea tree oil as a cause. Discontinue use if an allergic reaction develops.
Research in vitro shows components in tea tree oil can mimic estrogen and disrupt hormones. There is limited evidence this occurs with topical use in real-world settings. But people with hormone-sensitive conditions like endometriosis may still wish to exercise caution.
Increased Absorption of Toxins
Applying tea tree oil right before or after using a topical steroid cream may increase absorption of the steroid into the body. Only use tea tree oil and topical steroids separately. Tea tree oil should also not be applied to skin immediately after shaving.
Getting tea tree oil in the eyes may damage the cornea. Use extreme care when applying near the eyes and avoid contact with the eye itself.
Ingestion Through Skin
Evidence suggests tea tree oil can be absorbed into the bloodstream via topical use, especially if used over large areas. Absorption may cause effects like hormone changes, although this remains scientifically uncertain.
Avoid excessive use of tea tree oil as a precaution.
To reduce the risk of skin reactions, always dilute tea tree oil in a carrier oil and use topically for limited periods. Children and infants may be more susceptible to side effects, so extra care is needed.
Side Effects of Inhaling Tea Tree Oil
Inhalation of tea tree oil, such as through steam inhalation, also carries some risks:
Breathing in tea tree oil may cause or worsen skin irritation. It is best avoided for steam inhalation by those with inflammatory skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis (6).
Inhaling diffused tea tree oil can potentially cause irritation and inflammation of the lining of the lungs and airways. Use for short periods and at low concentrations in diffusers (7).
One clinical trial found inhaled tea tree oil worsened airway restriction in boys with asthma. Its antimicrobial action may alter airway microbes and cause airway changes. Those with asthma may wish to avoid inhalation (8).
Like with skin exposure, inhaling tea tree oil could theoretically disrupt hormone balance. This risk remains scientifically uncertain but should be considered by those with hormonal conditions (3).
Toxicity if Ingested
There are reports of toxicity occurring after ingesting tea tree oil. Using it in diffusers can add the risk of accidental ingestion, especially by children. Diffuse safely out of reach and only for limited periods (9).
Inhaled tea tree oil may cause allergic reactions like nasal congestion, sneezing, coughing, facial pressure and skin flushing. Discontinue use if such reactions develop (10).
Essential oil toxicity can also occur if absorbed into the body via inhalation. Do not inhale tea tree oil for prolonged periods. Seek medical care if any strong reactions occur.
Safe Use of Tea Tree Oil
When used carefully, most people can use tea tree oil safely. Follow these tips to reduce the risk of adverse effects:
Always dilute in a carrier oil before skin application and use for limited periods.
Avoid use if pregnant, breastfeeding or on young children due to lack of safety research.
Test on a small patch of skin first and watch closely for irritation.
Use low steam concentrations, properly ventilate and limit inhalation time.
Keep away from the nose, eyes and mouth. Seek medical care if accidental ingestion.
Stop use immediately if any negative reactions occur.
Consult a doctor before use on those with asthma, allergies, skin conditions or hormone disorders.
Tea tree oil provides topical antibacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits when used prudently. But it can also cause unwanted skin reactions, respiratory effects and systemic absorption when overused. Employ proper safety practices like dilution and skin testing to unlock its benefits while minimizing side effects. Also, consult a doctor for guidance tailored to your unique health status and risks.