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 that 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 things 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.
Why Does Tea Tree Oil Work on Acne?
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.
How should I apply tea tree oil to my skin?
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.
What do dermatologists say about tea tree oil?
Sure, the essential oil gets rave reviews from our friends, but what do top dermatologists think of the product? "My patients love to use it as a scalp antiseptic to decrease flaking due to psoriasis on their scalp and in their ears," says Dr. Jeanine Downie, MD and co-host of the skincare round table talk, The Gist.
Again, just make sure you're using small amounts of this stuff. Don't go overboard. Purvisha Patel, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare, recommends not using it on your skin directly if it's super sensitive. "It's best when mixed in or diluted in other oils and skincare formulations to prevent irritation of the skin," Patel explains.
Meanwhile, Ramya Viswanathan, the Biossance Director of New Product Development, is partial to combining tea tree oil with squalane. "Tea tree oil is a quite potent ingredient on its own," says Viswanthan, "We love pairing it with squalane to harness the purifying benefits while nourishing, hydrating and replenishing the skin."
How often should I use tea tree oil for my acne?
"There is no correct answer for this question because everybody reacts differently," explains Julia Bao, founder, and director of BAO Laboratory. It's no secret that everyone's skin is different, so if you're looking to add the essential oil to your skincare regimen, you might want to test it on a patch of skin to make sure you don't face any skin tingling side effects.
Are there any risks to tea tree oil?
"Tea tree oil is also photosensitive, so make sure to avoid direct sunlight or only use at night time," adds Bao. This basically means when in contact with the sun, tea tree oil changes, and not for the better. Most of the time, this results in sunspots, blisters, rashes, or even burns. We recommend playing it safe and just using it at night.