Long before Captain Cook set foot on the shores of Australia, the native inhabitants used the therapeutic oil of the Melaleuca trees for a wide range of topical and oral applications. They crushed the leaves to use as rubbing mediums and mixed them with clay to form poultices and even bathed in the water that had collected under the trees. The first white settlers watched and learned how to use the leaves for their own healing applications. It was most unfortunate for people in the west that there was no documented evidence, and the use of Melaleuca oil was to remain confined to Australia, as a bush remedy, for the next 150 years.
In 1922, an Australian chemist, Arthur Penfold and his team, from the Sydney Museum of Technology and Applied Science, distilled the oil from the Melaleuca alternifolia and subsequently published a paper stating that it had wide-ranging antibacterial and antifungal activity. It was announced to the world that this was a new type of germicide, gentle to skin cells but harmful to the invading germs. The oil of Melaleuca alternifolia went from strength to strength; it was successfully used to treat all manner of infections and infestations. It was the treatment of choice; from cuts and wounds to head lice, ringworm, leg ulcers, infections, catarrh, thrush, tonsillitis, pyorrhoea and gingivitis. Professors, doctors, dentists and veterinary surgeons utilized its many properties for the health and welfare of their patients.
Then came the Second World War and, inevitably, Melaleuca oil was in such short supply that all the available stocks were used to help stop infections from the unavoidable war wounds, both in soldiers and munitions workers that were helping with the war effort. Soon it was deemed necessary that a cheaper, more readily available, alternative should be manufactured to help stop the spread of germs; and the once thriving industry went into a steep decline. For the next twenty years the oil was all but forgotten.
Fortunately, Melaleuca alternifolia oil has over 100 components working synergistically together, most of which could not even be identified back in the early years, so an exact nature-identical copy was impossible to synthesize from man-made chemicals. In the Sixties, the oil made a remarkable comeback, the first scientific evidence in decades confirmed that it had a favorable effect in the treatment of boils, gynecological infections and later for varied foot problems and nail bed infections. Now the once sidelined oil was gaining in popularity, and farms were being set up to harvest the oil on a commercial basis.
In the early 1990s, a scientific research team was formed, lead by Associate Professor Tom Riley at the University of Western Australia. They have produced many papers, reviews and letters, and still continue to promote the versatility and effectiveness of this ancient and valuable oil. Their work has underlined its healing potential in the fight against infectious illness and inflammatory conditions. When they started to look at the antimicrobial activity of the major components of the essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia, it was they who first brought to our attention the remarkable susceptibility of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also called the hospital superbug (MRSA). It was a staphylococcus strain of bacterium that had evolved to beat most of the synthesized antibacterial medicines (antibiotics) available from orthodox medicine. In the United States and European hospitals, MRSA grew from under 3% of infections in the 1980s to 40% in the late 1990s. This superbug attacks people who have skin lesions, especially from post-operative wounds and/or a depressed immune system. But because it can be transferred from patient to patient via hospital staff and on implements such as pens and stethoscopes (MRSA carriage) Melaleuca alternifolia oil is invaluable as a topical disinfectant.
Riley and his team also found many other susceptibilities to the oil such as Propionibacterium acnes, which is the major antimicrobial cause of acne; Escherichia coli (E coli) and Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause food poisoning and infect wounds; Malassezia furfur, the fungal infection that causes seborrheic dermatitis to the sebum-rich areas of the scalp (dandruff), face and body; dermatophytes and other filamentous fungi, which cause topical infections; Lactobacilli and organisms associated with bacterial vaginosis; Candida species and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which can result in gynecological infections, digestive tract problems, also redness and itching to the skin; Staphylococci and Streptococci species of bacteria that causes impetigo, a raw, itchy superficial skin infection; and they also found a whole range of oral bacteria was susceptible: Actinomyces, Branhamella, Capnocytophaga, Clostridium, Eikenella, Fusobacterium, Haemophilus, Lactobacillus, Neisseria, Peptostreptococcus, Porphyromonas, Prevotella, Stomatococcus, Streptococcus and Veillonella, which can cause halitosis (bad breath), dental plaque, dental cavities (rotting teeth), gingivitis (gum inflammation) and periodontitis, which can result in the loss of teeth and infection entering the jaw bone.
Conversely, when they studied the susceptibility of transient and commensal skin flora to the essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia, it was encouraging that in a low dilution, Melaleuca oil did not disrupt the essential balance of micro-flora on the skin. And, they also found that allergic contact dermatitis, following the use of a hand-wash containing Melaleuca oil, was not actually due to the Melaleuca oil. All this means that it is ideal to add to toiletries, because at a very low dilution it can help to inhibit pathogenic bacteria, which are naturally resident on the skin, while preserving the good bacteria that we need to keep our skin healthy.
Their antimicrobial studies on the oil of Melaleuca alternifolia have been confirmed by other researchers in clinical trials around the world. Riley and his team still have many varied trials and collaborations in the pipeline. They have even broadened their work to include viral infections and have published their findings on the efficacy of a Melaleuca alternifolia gel (6%) in the treatment of Herpes labialis, which can cause cold sores in susceptible people. Their work, both in the laboratory (in-vitro) and on people (in-vivo) in a hospital setting is continuing, with the oil of Melaleuca alternifolia as an alternative topical decolonization agent for infections such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
They have also started to look at Terpinen-4-ol, the main component of the oil of Melaleuca alternifolia, to suppress inflammatory mediator production by activated human monocytes. Inflammatory responses are responsible for the reddened and raised areas of tissue damage when we bruise, burn or cut ourselves and when we are bitten by insects or have an allergic reaction. On a broader scale an inflammatory response is also implicated in degenerative diseases such as heart disease and arthritis.
Furthermore, it is through the group’s work on skin sensitivity we know that a low percentage of the population may have a sensitivity issue with using the oil full-strength; it is good that Melaleuca oil is very effective in quite low dilutions, so the undiluted oil never has to come into contact with the skin. Even so, it is important to patch test the oil or product on a small area of skin, before it is used fully. It has also been noted by other researchers that Melaleuca oil can become oxidized if not stored correctly, or is past its sell-by-date. The oil should always be kept in a cool, dark environment and used within a set time. It is also vitally important that the oil comes from a trusted supplier, who knows how to handle it and store it in the right conditions until it is sold. A good supplier will also be able to supply information on their oil, and guarantee that it is pure and not adulterated with other, less healthy, ingredients.
Melaleuca alternifolia oil is not only sold as an aromatherapy oil, but also an ingredient of choice in the manufacture of many commercial products, where it can cut down the need for additional artificial chemicals, so is ideal as an additive in everyday items such as laundry products, household cleaners, polishes, soaps, shampoos, hair conditioners, toiletries, skin creams, salves, ointments, toothpastes, mouth washes, deodorants, air fresheners, nail conditioners and insect repellents.
Along with all the scientific data that continues to grow, Melaleuca oil has been used for decades by ordinary people who find that it works for them, their family and their pets. Melaleuca oil is a good expectorant when inhaled and has a soothing effect on the throat; therefore, it can be used for throat and chest infections, and clearing up mucous. An inhalation can soothe coughing and stuffy noses, and using it at the start of an infection can help to inhibit the virus from spreading from person to person. A couple of drops in a glass of warm salty water can be used to combat mouth infections and on the skin to bathe cuts and scratches. It can be used in the bath, in shampoo to fight dandruff and head lice and in skin creams to alleviate skin conditions such as boils, pimples and acne.
And it doesn’t stop there, not only can Melaleuca oil be used in first aid applications and toiletries, amazingly, it is a powerful solvent too (which is why it helps to clear trapped bacteria in boils), and can be utilized all around the home. So if you have any old Melaleuca oil in the cupboard it can be safely used for household cleaning applications. It is particularly good for getting the glue off plates, jars and bottles often left behind by price stickers and labels. It can be an effective cleaner, removing paint and pen marks easily from surfaces, when mixed with a small amount of ordinary household cleaner or laundry product and rubbed over the area. It is a good stain remover for clothes and everyday washable items. But it must not be used full-strength on plastics and cheaper man-made fabrics, because they can become damaged by the strong solvent action. It can clean silver. It helps to deodorize rooms and cupboards. Mixed with a few drops of a culinary oil it can be sprinkled onto a duster and used to polish wooden furniture, both inside the house and in the garden.
Today, thanks to its efficacy and broad-spectrum antimicrobial properties, the oil of the Melaleuca alternifolia has spread across the world and practically everyone has heard about it, if not using its remarkable healing powers. There surely has never been a more versatile and useful natural oil.