Essential oils have been used in alternative medicine for thousands of years. Beyond their often pleasant scents providing aromatherapy, many essential oils are believed to provide biological benefits, such as antiseptic and anti-fungal properties. One such oil is tea tree oil, which has been used medicinally for over one hundred years in Australia for its therapeutic qualities.
Tea tree oil (also known as melaleuca alternifolia) has been used as a pure essential oil and as an active ingredient in products to provide antimicrobial, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties. Tea tree oil has also gained popularity in skincare formulations, as it has proven itself to be an effective acne fighter. Many of the same bacteria that tea tree oil combats on the face can be found on the scalp — where it causes similar chaos in the form of dandruff and irritation.
Meet the Expert
- Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor at Cornell.
- Morgan Rabach, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of LM Medical.
- Ginger King is a cosmetic chemist, owner of product development firm Grace Kingdom Beauty, and founder of lip care brand Fan Love Beauty.
Is tea tree oil the holistic solution to your dandruff and itchy scalp? We turned to two dermatologists and a cosmetic chemist for their advice on using tea tree oil for the scalp and hair.
Type of ingredient: Antimicrobial, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Main benefits: Soothes the scalp, treats dandruff, and improves overall scalp health.
Who should use it: Generally, anyone with dandruff or other scalp inflammation can benefit from tea tree oil. Tea tree oil can be used on all hair types and textures, but it can be irritating, so those with sensitive skin should use it cautiously.
How often can you use it: If applying tea tree oil directly to the scalp, use 2-3 times per week. Shampoos containing tea tree oil can be used daily, but the scalp should be monitored for irritation.
Works well with: Emollients or other calming ingredients to help reduce any chance of irritation or sensitivity.
Don’t use with: There are no known ingredients that interfere with tea tree oil, but it should not be used in conjunction with other active ingredients that cause irritation or sensitivity.
Benefits of Tea Tree Oil for Hair
Tea tree oil has the ability to transform your hair, starting at the scalp. Its antimicrobial, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties make it a potent treatment for dandruff, improving overall scalp health. Healthy hair and new growth start at the scalp, so improving your scalp health should be the first step in any attempt to increase hair growth.
When using tea tree oil to treat the hair and scalp, it's important to make sure you are using an essential oil and not just a fragrance oil, as fragrance oils do not contain the same health benefits. Essential oils are obtained through hydrodistillation, steam distillation, dry distillation, or the mechanical cold pressing of plants. These differ from fragrance oils, which are often manufactured in a lab.
- Fights the flakes of dandruff: Dandruff is typically caused by yeast infecting the scalp. Garshick points to tea tree oil's antibacterial and antifungal properties to explain its research-proven ability to treat the source of dandruff. Participants in this study who used tea tree oil shampoo showed a 41% improvement in their dandruff symptoms. Additionally, tea tree oil can reduce the itchiness associated with dandruff as it fights the flake-forming yeast.
- Antioxidant and antimicrobial properties: "It has antimicrobial properties," explains King. That means tea tree oil can also relieve other itchy conditions of the scalp, such as seborrheic dermatitis. It has potent antioxidants, which can help alleviate the redness, itching, and pain that can accompany conditions of the scalp.
- Reduces inflammation: Tea tree oil is also thought to help reduce inflammation by reducing certain markers of inflammation, Garshick explains. Rabach agrees, adding that tea tree oil may have anti-inflammatory properties due to its antioxidants. Inflammation of the scalp is one of the leading causes of hair loss, so reducing inflammation may prevent future hair loss.
- Regulates oil production: Oily or greasy hair can often result from dandruff or other bacteria on the scalp. By treating the source of the overproduction, tea tree oil can help regulate the scalp's oil production, resulting in a healthier scalp and better-looking hair.
- Can contribute to new hair growth: A healthy scalp is essential to new hair growth. Tea tree oil's relationship with hair growth is not a direct one, but improving overall scalp health can foster a healthy environment for the hair to grow, Garshick explains. Rabach adds that there is some evidence that it may help improve scalp health and reduce dandruff, which does, in turn, allow hair to be its healthiest.
- All-natural delousing treatment: Exposure to head lice often means using harsh chemical treatments to curb the infestation and prevent new eggs from hatching. A study found that tea tree oil was an effective treatment for lice for those looking for a holistic approach to delousing.
Hair Type Considerations
The experts agree that tea tree oil is safe for all hair types and textures, as it has little to no effect on the hair itself. Tea tree oil can be used to treat scalp conditions, such as dandruff, but it is important to note that it has the potential for irritation. Rabach explains that anyone can use tea tree oil, but it can cause contact or irritant dermatitis and allergic reactions.
"People that have allergies to Balsam of Peru, benzoin, colophony tinctures, eucalyptol, or plants from the myrtle family, have a greater likelihood of being allergic to tea tree oil and those people should skin test by putting some oil on their Inner arm and waiting two to three days," Rabach cautions.
How to Use Tea Tree Oil for Hair
Tea tree oil can be used in two ways to benefit your scalp health: in its pure essential oil form or as an active ingredient in shampoos. Due to the high potential for sensitivity when using tea tree oil on the scalp, it is recommended that you dilute it with a carrier oil before application. Tea tree oil is often best applied to the scalp in a shampoo, especially for those with more sensitive skin to minimize the risk of sensitivity or irritation, Garshick cautions. It is also important to check the label to see how much tea tree oil is present to know what to expect, as stronger concentrations are more likely to irritate. As with any other new ingredient, it is important to test a small skin patch before applying it to your whole head.
- Add drops of tea tree oil to your shampoo: To avoid irritation, tea tree oil can be added to your favorite shampoo. Add two to three drops of tea tree oil to your palm and mix with your normal amount of shampoo. Leave on for five minutes and then rinse thoroughly. Avoid adding tea tree directly to the bottle of shampoo, as you may need to discontinue use if irritation occurs.
- Create a massage oil for your scalp: Rabach recommends applying tea tree oil post-shampoo by using your fingertips to massage it into your damp scalp. Since this will be a leave-in treatment, it may be beneficial to mix the two to three drops of tea tree oil with your favorite carrier oil, such as almond or coconut oil, to prevent irritation. The act of massaging the scalp also increases blood flow, which can benefit hair growth.
- Combine with your favorite hair mask: Add a few drops of tea tree oil to your favorite deep conditioning treatment to treat dandruff and dryness at the same time.
- Use products with tea tree oil: When mixing it yourself, you may risk concocting a stronger than intended treatment which can irritate. Garshick recommends buying products that already contain tea tree oil to be certain of their concentration. Garshick recommends the following tea tree oil products.
The Best Hair Products With Tea Tree Oil
Garshick says this combines a blend of tea tree oil, peppermint oil, and lavender oil, leaving a cooling and refreshing feeling on the scalp. It can be used by all hair types and is also safe for color-treated hair.
This shampoo contains both tea tree oil and hemp seed oil, which Rabach says washes the scalp while leaving it feeling soft and rejuvenated.
This 100% natural, organic tea tree oil can be diluted with water or oil, or used as-is (just take a few drops and rub them into the scalp).
Tea tree oil and argan oil work together to reduce dryness and itching on the scalp, and to help alleviate dandruff.
This budget-friendly shampoo is refreshing, thanks to a blend of mint and tea tree oil — meanwhile, milk proteins help strengthen and moisturize strands.
Can tea tree oil cause irritation on the scalp?
Tea tree oil is largely safe, though it may cause skin irritation. If so, discontinue use and consult an expert.
Does tea tree oil help with dandruff?
Thanks to its antibacterial properties, tea tree oil can help with flakes and dandruff.
Does tea tree oil have any other benefits for the scalp or hair?
Tea tree oil can help with conditions such as eczema, which can cause irritation on the scalp.