Why This Old-School Acne Treatment Deserves Another Chance

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 breakouts under control. The star ingredient was always tea tree. You know the one — and you definitely know that earthy, slightly medicinal smell, which lingered long after application.
A lucky few of us managed to leave our zits back in high school, but recent research actually suggests a noticeable increase in adult female acne, meaning we're still reaching for the spot treatments to this day. Somewhere along the line, however, we've upgraded our ingredients list and ditched a humble dab of tea tree in favor of exfoliating acids, like lactic, glycolic, and salicylic, as well as retinoids, the vitamin A derivatives that have the ability to speed up cell turnover and unclog pores.
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All the above ingredients are proven to keep breakouts, and the dark spots that follow, at bay. But why have we forgotten tea tree, especially when the experts argue it could be just as effective?
During a recent panel, dermatologist Anjali Mahto made the case for the unassuming ingredient as part of a consistent skin-care routine. "Tea tree oil is derived from the plant melaleuca alternifolia," Dr. Mahto said. "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," she says. That means tea tree has the ability to inhibit the growth of bacteria and bring down redness — which Nauseen Qureshi, a biochemist and founder of skin-care brand Elequra, takes seriously.
"The tea tree's leaves are either ground into a powdered extract or pressed to create an oil," Qureshi said. "Tea tree includes a terpene compound within it called terpinen-4-ol, but the compound is more present and available in the oil form." That terpene, she said, has been shown in some studies to reduce the growth and presence of some types of bacteria, including P. acnes, which aggravates the skin by creating an immune response that leads to breakouts. "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; it's likely most effective as a targeted spot treatment, concentrated to one specific area. That said, there are numerous best-selling cleansers, moisturizers, and facial mists infused with the ingredient. Medik8's Beta Cleanse, for example, makes for the perfect nighttime wash, thanks to the addition of salicylic acid (which penetrates pores, dislodging sebum and dead skin cells), niacinamide (which regulates oil production and minimizes the appearance of enlarged pores) and, of course, tea tree oil to bust bacteria and reduce inflammation. Elequra's Boosting pH Mist harnesses tea tree to soothe and reduce redness when spritzed liberally onto clean, dry skin, and Benton's Tea Tree Cleansing Water is consistently sold out for very good reason.
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're thinking of incorporating it into your skin-care routine, do it 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 and seek help from an experienced dermatologist. Say it with us: Just because it's supposedly Meghan Markle's favorite zit-zapper doesn't necessarily mean it'll be yours, too.
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.
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