The perfect remedy? Ask an Aborigine

Heather Welford explains why tea tree oil may be better than some antibiotics
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Indy Lifestyle Online
What works for acne, athlete's foot, arthritis and numerous other ailments and was first discovered by the Aborigines of New South Wales? Answer: tea tree oil, or oil from the leaves of Melaluca alternifolia. Traditionally used for its powerful antiseptic, painkilling and wound- healing properties, tea tree oil is now making a comeback. Researchers think it could provide at least part of the answer to the overuse of antibiotics.

In the Second World War a bottle of tea tree oil was standard government issue in the first-aid kits of the Australian army and navy. It was used as an all-round healer for centuries by the aborigines, who shared their knowledge with white farmers and other settlers. Its effectiveness - primarily as an antiseptic and an anti-bacterial - has been documented in Australian medical journals since the 1920s.

Interest in tea tree oil began to wane in the Fifties, when antibiotics seemed to provide the answer to so many diseases. But recently, with the growing interest in plant-based medicines, enthusiasm has revived. Karen Mackenzie became a fan when an application of tea tree oil cleared up a patch of dry, inflamed skin on her small daughter's leg. "I'd tried everything else, and nothing had worked," she recalls.

Ms Mackenzie has now written the definitive guide to this gentle but powerful natural anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-fungal substance. Her Tea Tree Oil Encyclopaedia details hundreds of uses, not all medical: she recommends it for anal itching (2-3 drops mixed with 2ml olive oil, applied with cotton wool), for cleaning jewellery (a few drops neat on a duster for stubborn marks on silver), and for DIY pessaries to combat vaginal thrush (usefully, she gives full instructions).

UK over-the-counter sales are catching up with the Australian home market, where tea tree oil is an ingredient in scores of different health and beauty products, although UK regulations block the sale of some as yet clinically unproven items. Ian Smith, from the Bradford-based company Health Imports, which distributes a few dozen tea tree oil products, says:"Chemists are recommending tea tree oil shampoo to parents of children with head lice as an alternative to the chemical-based insecticides that have caused so much concern." There's even a dog shampoo containing tea tree oil, for skin-sensitive canines.

On a more serious note, researchers are also becoming interested in this essential oil.Giles Elsom, a microbiologist from the University of East London's department of life sciences, is currently looking at how tea tree oil inhibits and kills a range of common organisms that have developed resistance to "normal" antibiotics. "We've discovered tea tree oil is very effective, and it's quick-acting, too," he says.

He predicts it will be used in hospitals, where infection rates from antibiotic-resistant bacteria are causing concern. So-called "golden staph", or Staphylococcus aureus, is especially persistent. As fast as hospitals can eradicate this resilient bacterium, it returns with the next in-patient. Giles Elsom thinks tea tree oil may have a role in eradicating it, where conventional antibiotic treatment is now pretty useless. "Colleagues in this department are about to look at whether a human 'sheep dip' could help," he says. "When patients are admitted to hospital, they will be dunked in a bath with tea tree oil in it, and rates of infection will be monitored."

'The Tea Tree Oil Encyclopaedia', by Karen Mackenzie, is available to 'Independent' readers at the special offer price of pounds 11.99 (pounds 3 off recommended retail price). This includes p&p, plus a free 10 ml bottle of tea tree oil. Details on 01530 264191.