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Tea tree oil is produced using the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia tea tree, which is native to the northern New South Wales and southern Queensland regions of Australia. 


The name ‘tea tree’ was first used when Captain James Cook disembarked from the H.M.S. Endeavour at Botany Bay in Sydney, joined by a young botanist called Joseph Banks. They travelled north along the Australian coastline and discovered that when the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia were boiled, they created a spicy and aromatic tea. Joseph Banks collected samples of these leaves to take back to England for further study. On his return, he was named President of the Royal Society and was bestowed a baronetcy, becoming Sir Joseph Banks.


Years later, Captain Cook noted in his journal “… We at first made it [beer] of a decoction of the spruce leaves; but finding that this alone made the beer too astringent, we afterwards mixed it with an equal quantity of the tea plant (a name it obtained in my former voyage from us using it as a tea then, as we also did now) which partly destroyed the astringency of the other; and made the beer exceedingly palatable, and esteemed by everyone on board.”1


Soon after settling in Australia, the Europeans took note of the many health benefits of this traditional medicine and it was used as a local bush remedy for the next 150 years. In the 1920s, Arthur Penfold—a chemist from the Sydney Museum of Technology and Applied Science—began to experiment with extracting oil from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia. He documented its antimicrobial activity in a series of research reports that were published in the early 20th century, which found that tea tree oil was 11 times more active than phenol—the most common germicide of the time. It became recognised internationally as a natural antiseptic—gentle on the skin but harmful to germs.


Following the publication of Penfold’s research, tea tree oil was commercially harvested and it became known as a ‘First Aid Kit in a bottle’, used by families as a natural antiseptic in the home. Tea tree oil was included in the Australian soldier’s kit during World War II and used as a powerful healing agent around the world. During and following the war, production ebbed as the wild-harvested trees could not commercially compete with the availability of antibiotics and synthetic germicides.


In the 1970s, the establishment of commercial tea tree plantations from seeds harvested in the bush allowed tea tree oil to be produced on a larger and more affordable scale. The benefits of a natural approach to health also began to be popularised, causing a resurgence in the use of tea tree oil. It is now one of the most researched essential oils in the world, with more than 1200 research papers assessing the effectiveness and safety of the oil in treating a range of ailments, from dandruff to wounds and fungal infections.3



[1] National Geographic, 1977, Vol 1. P99, A Voyage Towards the South Pole, National Geographic Society.
[2] Olsen, C. 1999, Australian Tea Tree Oil Guide: First Aid Kit In A Bottle (Third Edition), Kali Press, USA.
[3] Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, 2007, The Effectiveness and Safety of Australian Tea Tree Oil, Australian Government, Australia

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