|Ahoy, Matey. Even Captain Cook's crew counted on leaves from the Melaleuca tree to keep healthy.
The next time your son comes bounding into the house crying over a bloody knee or elbow, give him some special explorer medicine.
In 1770, sailors from Captain Cook's expedition to the South Seas ventured ashore at New South Wales and brewed a strange tea using the leaves of the Melaleuca (MELa-LEUCa) tree, native to Australia and the East Indies. They made tea tree oil, and they didn't drink it.
The sailors - and the Australian Aborigines before them - used the oil to treat skin disorders. Known to discourage the growth of several bacteria found in cuts, scrapes, insect bites, and stings, the oil has since been found to help control acne, fight fungal nail infections, jock itch, and athlete's foot.
Tea tree oil is steam-distilled from the tree's leaves. Often referred to simply as Melaleuca oil, the pure oil is colorless to pale yellow.
High-quality tea tree oil contains at least 40 percent or more of terpinen-4-ol, the ingredient that fights harmful bacteria and fungi and makes the oil so effective in fighting infection. Tea tree oil is available in several forms, and while it may sound obvious, tea tree oil in any form should only be used externally.
"People need only to drop the oil onto the skin," says Veronica Butterweck, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the pharmaceutics department at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "It can be used undiluted or diluted."
Before buying any topical preparation with tea tree oil, check the label to be sure the oil is from the Melaleuca alternifolia species (there are more than 150 species of this plant). Oil from other species may have a high percentage of cineole, a compound that can irritate the skin and hinder the oil's active ingredients from providing any therapeutic benefit.
"Tea tree oil has been really popular in Europe, and I think it's because it is a natural medicine with no known problems," says Butterweck. Some people, however, have been found to have allergic skin reactions to tea tree oil, so before using, dab a small amount on the skin first. If skin becomes red and inflamed, discontinue use.
LEARN MORE: For information on tea tree oil, visit www.wholehealthmd.com.