…seems tea tree may just win
In the same week, both a patient and my brother-in-law mentioned they used tea tree oil for different purposes; so I decided this was a sign to review it’s uses and the research out there.
My patient used a tea tree oil mixture to treat candida vaginitis and my brother-in-law mentioned he was using the tea tree oil to reduce his chances of getting sick by swabbing his nose with it. I love my tea tree shampoo and I have used a drop of tea tree on pimples before (only because someone else said it worked – not because I knew the research) but never really thought about any medical properties.
I do recall swimming in a pond surrounded by tea trees when I was in Australia many years ago. Following that swim, my skin and hair felt amazing, and I felt refreshed. Was it just my imagination? Maybe, but known as Melaleuca alternifolia, Australian aboriginals used the leaves of the tea tree for healing purposes for generations.
Since I am an Ob/Gyn, of course I had to look most into the treatment my patient was using and just how successful it might be to treat her yeast. I had no comment really when she mentioned she was doing this, other than “I hope it works”. Next time someone mentions this treatment, I want a better response.
The active ingredient in tea tree oil appears to be Terpinen-4-ol (terpene) that gives it an antimicrobial and antifungal effect (Carson & Riley, 1995). Even fewer reviews of tea tree oils on viruses and protozoas exist; however, there is a suggestion that there is activity against both (Carson, Hammer & Riley, 2006).
In bacteria and fungus/yeast, the terpenes are thought to work by entering the cell membrane, causing potassium leakage, and ultimately leading to rupture of the cell wall (Cassella, Cassella & Smith, 2002; Carson, Hammer, & Riley, 2006). This would include the Candida albicans species of yeast that is so common with vaginal yeast infections. While laboratory studies are promising, there are no clinical studies in humans. The pharmaceutical companies have little interest in this type of research. Interestingly, the natural vaginal bacteria, lactobacilli, are more resistant to exposure from tea tree (Cassella, Cassella & Smith, 2002). This suggests that some of the natural flora of the vagina would be protected. There is a rat model of vaginal candidiasis that supports the use of tea tree for the treatment of this type of yeast infection. (Mondello, De Bernardis, Girolamo, Salvatore, & Cassone, 2003).
While literature on clinical application in humans is lacking, based on in vitro (lab studies using cells/organisms alone) and the support of it’s use in an animal model, there does seem to be a role for tea tree oil use in treating vaginal candidiasis. However, with the positive benefits, it’s also important to remember that even things that provide such benefits can result in toxic outcomes if used incorrectly.
If ingested, it can be poisonous. If used orally, swallowing should be avoided. The main reports note that tea tree can cause irritation to the skin. Using a well-formulated product, lower in concentration, and by diluting with other components such as oils or creams irritation is reduced. While allergic reactions have been reported (De Groot & Weyland, 1992), it appears it may be due from oxidation products from aged or poorly stored oils rather than from the oil itself (Hausen, Reichling, & Harkenthal, 1999).
If I had a patient who really did not want to try the standard treatment of clotrimazole cream or fluconazole pill, or had a bad reaction to either of them then I’d certainly recommend they try this option. It appears there is the potential for benefit with very little risk. Even if they had another type of bacterial infection, the data suggest these tea tree mixtures may still treat those. In fact, if I have another yeast infection, I may just give one of these recipes a try.
There are a few different recipes out there. The majority make a tea tree suppository with a gel capsule. The mixture contains 1/3 tea tree oil (2-3 drops) combined with 2/3 vitamin E oil, calendula oil, olive oil, sweet almond oil, vegetable oil or water (4-6 drops). This is then used for at least 6 nights (Van Kessel, Assefi, Marrazzo, & Eckert, 2003). Using a gel capsule prevents the oil from getting on the outside skin to decrease risk of irritation.
According to Livestrong.com, in a similar fashion, a tea tree oil tampon can be used nightly instead. Using the same mixture, saturate a clean and sanitary tampon. Afterwards, insert the saturated tea tree oil tampon into your vagina. Avoid the outside skin as much as possible. While Van Kessel et al 2003, suggested a 6 night course, this website article recommended using nightly for up to six weeks.
As with most treatments, the least effective dose possible can prevent the side effects. I’d try 6 days and see if there was a positive effect with potential for additional use, if necessary. However, if things don’t seem to be improving after those 6 days, and especially if you haven’t already seen a physician to make the diagnosis, it’d be important to be evaluated for other potential causes of vaginal discharge, some which can be serious. There have been studies that looked at how well women diagnosis their own yeast infections, and many women over-diagnosed this as a cause of there vaginal irritation or discharge, be sure to see your ob-gyn for evaluation.
Carson CF, Hammer KA, and Riley TV, 2006. Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil: A review of antimicrobial and other medicinal properties. Clinical Microbiology Reviews 19(1):50-62.
Carson CF and Riley TV (1994). Susceptibility of Propionibacterium acnes to the essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia. Lett Appl Microbiol 19; 24-25.
Carson CF and Riley TV (1995). Antimicrobial activity of the major components of the essential oil of Melaleica alternifolia. J Applied Bacteriol, 78;264-269.
Cassella S, Cassella JP, and Smith I (2002). Synergistic antifungal activity of tea tree (melaleuca alternifolia) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oils against dermatophyte infection. Int J Aromather 12; 2-15.
De Groot AC and Weyland JW, 1992. Systemic contact dermatitis from tea tree oil. Contact Dermatitis 27: 279-280.
Hausen BM, Reichling J, and Harkenthal M. 1999. Degradation products of monoterpens are the sensitizing agents in tea tree oil. Am J Contact Dermatitis 10:68-77.
Livestrong.com. Kristi Patrice Carter, article on bacterial vaginosis treatments. Accessed: February 12, 2012.
Mondello F, De Bernardis F, Girolamo A, Salvatore G, and Cassone A (2003). In vitro and in vivo activity of tea tree oil against azole-susceptible and resistant human pathogenic yeast. J Antimicrob. Chemother. 51: 1223-1229.
Pena EF (1962). Malaleuca alternifolia oil – its use for trichomonal vaginitis and other vaginal infectsion. Obstet Gynecol 19; 793-795.
Van Kessel K, Assefi N, Marrazzo J, & Eckert L . (2003). Common complementary and alternative theraies for yeast vaginitis and bacterial vaginosis: A systemic review. Obstetrical and gynecological survey 58;351-358.