Oil Crisis ; It's Nature's Healer, Treating Ailments from Acne to MRSA. but Now There Are Real Worries about the Safety of Tea Tree Products. Jeremy Laurance Reports

Article excerpt

Personally, I wouldn't mind if the stuff was banned tomorrow. I once used tea tree oil in a shampoo. Never again. I liked the smell of menthol and the cooling sensation - the top of my skull felt as though it had lifted half an inch off my head. But after every up there is always a down. Within hours my scalp started to itch, and then to flake. The next day, it looked like a Colombian drug baron had sneezed across my shoulders. I dived into the shower for relief.

Tea tree oil is powerful stuff. It is also ubiquitous. Its popularity has seen it included as an ingredient of lotions and creams for acne, as an antiseptic for cuts and grazes and as a mild astringent in shampoos, shower gels and vapour rubs.

Its versatility has attracted the interest of scientists - and they have sounded a note of caution. The International Fragrance Association warned in 2001 that the product could be irritating to the skin; this warning was mainly to protect factory workers producing and handling the stuff in large quantities.

The European Cosmetics Association recommended in 2002 that tea tree oil should be limited to a concentration of 1 per cent in cosmetic products. This opinion was backed by Germany's Federal Institute of Risk Assessment in 2003.

In December 2004, the European Commission's scientific committee on consumer products published the most thorough analysis yet of the safety of tea tree oil. It concluded that its use in cosmetics and soaps, where its concentration did not exceed 1 per cent, was unlikely to be harmful. At higher than 1 per cent, there was a risk it might cause skin irritation in some people.

But tea tree oil is also sold neat - as an antiseptic; as a treatment for spots and pimples; and as an insect and lice repellant. The scientific committee said it could not judge whether products containing high concentrations of tea tree oil, of up to 100 per cent, were safe and requested more information from the manufacturers. Its blunt conclusion was: "The sparse data available suggest [that] undiluted oil as a commercial product is not safe."

Most tea tree oil is produced in Australia; it is derived from the Australian metaleuca tree and has been used as a traditional remedy by Australian Aborigines for centuries. It was used by Australian soldiers during the First World War as an antiseptic for wounds, and more recently it has been cited as a potential weapon against the superbug MRSA.

The Australian Tea Tree Oil Industry Association is due to submit a dossier of evidence on the safety of the neat product by the end of next month, having missed the initial deadline of the end of 2005. The EU scientific committee will then consider its verdict.

Customers, retailers and manufacturers now await the outcome with varying degrees of anxiety. Chris Flower, the director general of the Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association, is relaxed. He says: "People using tea tree oil products should carry on without worrying. There is no issue in relation to its safety in cosmetics. …