Tea Tree: The Old School Acne-Fighting Ingredient That Really Works

If you had acne as a teenager, you probably remember stockpiling foaming face washes, topical gels and all manner of other products that promised to keep your spots under control. The star ingredient was always tea tree. You know the one – its earthy, slightly medicinal smell lingered long after application.
While many of us left spots behind in our teens, recent research suggests an increase in adult female acne. Somewhere along the line, though, we've upgraded our ingredients list and ditched a humble dab of tea tree in favour of exfoliating acids, like lactic, glycolic and salicylic, as well as retinoids – vitamin A derivatives that have the ability to speed up cell turnover, unclogging pores. All the above ingredients are proven to keep breakouts, and the skin staining that follows, at bay, but why have we forgotten tea tree, when the experts argue it could be just as effective?
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At the Refinery29 x Liz Earle presents Skin Deep event earlier this month, panellist and consultant dermatologist, Dr Anjali Mahto, made a case for the unassuming ingredient as part of a consistent skincare routine. "Tea tree oil is derived from the plant melaleuca alternifolia," Dr Mahto told Refinery29. "It has been found in some studies to work better than placebo treatments alone in reducing the number and severity of acne lesions and can be a useful agent due to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory activity," which means it has the ability to inhibit the growth of bacteria and bring down redness – something Nausheen Qureshi, biochemist and founder of skincare brand Elequra seconds.
"The tea tree's leaves are either ground into a powdered extract or pressed to create an oil," she told R29. "It is highly effective because it includes a terpene compound within it called terpinen-4-ol, but the compound is more present and available in the oil form." She added: "This has been shown in some studies to reduce the growth and presence of some bacteria, in particular, P. acnes, which can aggravate the skin by creating an immune response that leads to spots. So tea tree can help combat the growth of this bacteria to help reduce the occurrence of acne."
According to the experts, tea tree oil formulated at a concentration of 5% is most beneficial for treating acne, suggesting it may be more effective as a targeted spot treatment, concentrated to one specific area, but there are lots of brilliant cleansers, moisturisers and face mists infused with the ingredient. Medik8's Clarifying Foam, £7, is recommended by dermatologists as an evening cleanse thanks to the addition of salicylic acid (which penetrates pores, dislodging sebum and dead skin cells), niacinamide (which regulates oil production and minimises the appearance of enlarged pores) and, of course, tea tree oil to bust bacteria and reduce inflammation, while Elequra's Boosting pH Mist, £35, harnesses tea tree to soothe and reduce redness when spritzed liberally onto clean, dry skin. And if you're sold on the benefits of an exfoliator, try Boots' Tea Tree and Witch Hazel Exfoliating Pads, £4.99, which slough away dead skin cells and grime with no irritation.
But just because tea tree oil is derived from a natural source, doesn't mean it works for every skin type. According to Dr Mahto, it may cause sensitivity and irritation just like other essential oils, so if you are thinking of incorporating it into your skincare routine, do so as if you were using retinoids or acids for the first time – slowly and with caution, and if your skin reacts, give it a break, stop using the ingredient and seek help from an experienced consultant dermatologist.
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