Tea-tree oil is 'unstable' and 'unsafe'

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Tea-tree oil, one of the most popular natural medicines sold in Britain, has been branded unsafe by an influential panel of scientists.

Tea-tree oil, one of the most popular natural medicines sold in Britain, has been branded unsafe by an influential panel of scientists.

The group, which rules on the safety of consumer products for the European Commission, warned undiluted tea-tree oil could be unsafe to sell to the public.

It claimed that even small amounts could be risky because existing safety tests were inadequate, and has told the cosmetics industry it has less than 12 months to prove it is safe to use.

It said the neat oil was "a severe irritant" to the skin and "degraded rapidly" if exposed to air, light and heat. Even widely sold toiletries were of "questionable stability", it added, and sold without adequate proof of safety.

The warning will alarm Britain's health and beauty firms. Toiletries that use tea-tree oil are among their biggest sellers. The Body Shop sells more than £6m-worth of products a year. Retailers such as Holland & Barrett could now be forced to withdraw their top-selling ranges of pure tea-tree oil, which sells at all its 170 branches for £3.29 for 10mls.

The oil, which is derived from the Australian melaleuca tree and has been a traditional remedy among Australian Aboriginals for centuries, is famous for its antiseptic properties.

Used by Australian troops for battlefield injuries in the First World War, it is now in shower gels, toothpastes, mouthwash and face cleansers, to cure skin complaints, to treat cuts and burns, as an insect and lice repellent, and has even been cited as a possible treatment for the MRSA superbug.

But now the Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, which officially advises the EU on whether products can be sold, has said it has serious concerns.

In an unusually blunt official opinion released last week, the committee stated: "The sparse data available suggest undiluted oil as a commercial product is not safe." Its major concern was that toxic and risky chemicals become even more potent - up to three times as strong - if stored at room temperature, and exposed to light and air.

Clinical trials had also shown new allergies in small numbers of people, and led to allergic reactions in others. There were also cases where children and adults had suffered severe toxic reactions after swallowing the oil. Europe's toiletries and cosmetics firms have been given until the end of this year to answer its complaints - an unusually strict deadline - when it will issue a final ruling on the future sale of the oil.

The warnings follow official advice from the European cosmetics industry association, COLIPA, that neat tea-tree oil should not be used on the skin, and products should use less than 1 per cent oil, because of the known risk of skin rashes. The Body Shop has admitted some of its products use higher dosages. Holland & Barrett insisted its safety tests were rigorous.

Chris Flowers, head of the British Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, said these firms knew the safety limit. He added, however, that manufacturers were also legally bound to ensure their products were safe.

He said: "Many people have assumed that because it is natural, it must be fine. The industry has known it isn't fine and that we have to understand the safety issues."

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