To say my skin is annoying is putting it mildly: It’s incredibly sensitive, crazy dry, and also very susceptible to hormonal acne. Which means attempting to treat the occasional zit with classic over-the-counter products usually results in rashes, irritation, and flakes. Basically, trying to fix one problem just makes my whole deal even worse. Fun.
So when I find an acne product that even remotely works without irritating my face, I feel the need to shout its praises on the interwebs for all to read. And my latest yell-worthy discovery? The wonderful (and wonderfully smelly) tea tree oil.
Tea tree oil sounds like one of those hippie-dippie alternative skincare treatments that surely can’t be as effective as tried-and-true ingredients like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, right? That’s what I thought when my hippy-dippie friend handed me a tiny bottle of pure tea tree oil. But after dabbing it over my whiteheads and bumps one night, I went to sleep and woke up with…well, the same zits, albeit much smaller and visibly less irritated (hey, nothing topical is going to get rid of your acne in a few hours, regardless of what the packaging may claim).
Still, as anyone with sensitive skin knows, it's a big deal to find a pimple product that doesn't irritate the hell out of your face. But tea tree oil isn't magical—it's just an acne-fighter that's not commonly used, even though it's actually quite excellent. Studies show that tea tree oil can be just as effective as benzoyl peroxide at treating acne, but with fewer irritating side effects.
As a quick refresher, benzoyl peroxide, BP, is chemically formulated to kill the acne-causing bacteria on your skin fast—though often at an irritating cost—while tea tree oil, TTO, uses its natural antibacterial properties to kill off bacteria at a slower, gentler rate. So why use TTO, if it's slower? Because "it's also a natural anti-inflammatory,” explains dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor at Yale University, meaning it’ll help calm the redness and irritation already on your skin, without causing more. And for anyone with temperamental skin, that's a huge, huge deal.
Of course, there are some caveats. “Tea tree oil can be really drying on some people,” says Dr. Gohara—namely, if you use it undiluted, which is the biggest of no-nos. For something that sounds so harmless (oil! Tea!), it's surprisingly irritating when applied to clean, dry skin, thanks to how intensely concentrated tea tree oil is. But don’t freak—as long as you dilute it before you apply it, you’ll be fine.
I’ve found it most effective to apply my TTO with a damp Q-tip (to help dilute it) after applying my moisturizer at night, so there’s a buffer between it and my skin. I then swab the inside of the TTO lid with the damp Q-tip to pick up just a small amount of product, before dabbing it over my zits. Easy, right?
Be forewarned, though: Tea tree oil has a strong medicinal smell that may or may not make your significant other whine loudly. But for that sweet, sweet zit-killing relief (without the irritation)? I'll take all the whining in the world.