Basics of Treating Seborrheic Dermatitis with Tea Tree Oil

Treating seborrheic dermatitis with tea tree oil is a well known and actively discussed method. It’s simple, natural, cost-effective, and even has a few studies that support its effectiveness.

Tea tree oil is understood to be helpful thanks to its antifungal properties, which reduce the skin’s population of the yeast/fungi that is believed to cause seborrheic dermatitis.

This post outlines what tea tree oil is and the different methods in which people use it to combat seborrheic dermatitis. Tidbits of my experience with tea tree oil as sprinkled throughout.

Discussion of seborrheic dermatitis itself is limited. If you want to learn more about seborrheic dermatitis and the fundamentals of the condition, consider reading through the What is Seborrheic Dermatitis section.

If you have any questions, suggestions, or experience with using tea tree oil, join the discussion in the comments section at the end of this article.

Quick Intro of Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is an inflammatory skin condition that is not yet fully understood. It is considered to be a chronic skin condition that requires ongoing maintenance treatment, the focus of which is symptom relief.

The primary understanding, as to the cause, of the condition is that a commensal skin fungus by the name of Malassezia is responsible for the symptoms seborrheic dermatitis sufferers experience. More specifically, increased Malassezia activity on the skin surface results in an increase of irritant by-products. These by-products go on to cause irritation and degrade the skin’s natural barrier function. Collectively, this process and the symptoms that it causes is what we have come to know as seborrheic dermatitis.

More detailed discussion of this and other possible routes of seborrheic dermatitis progression can be found in the dedicated section, but for now

Tea Tree Oil Overview

Tea tree oil is a popular essential oil known for its ability to control fungus and bacteria (antifungal and antimicrobial properties). It is considered a natural remedy and has been used throughout history for all sorts of skin ailments, ranging from acne to dandruff.

Pure tea tree oil is available at most supermarkets and health stores. It is a fairly affordable essential oil averaging about $10 for 150ml.

Additionally, it is added to many natural skincare products (shampoos, soaps, creams, etc.). Here, it’s most commonly used at a 5% to 10% concentration [1].

Many people believe that it is most effective if purchased separately (as a pure essential oil). This is due to additional processing that commercial products often undergo. These people recommend purchasing tea tree oil on its own and then diluting as required.

Review of the Evidence

Several studies examining the potential use of tea tree oil for seborrheic dermatitis appear to confirm it’s efficiency and generally support its use:

  • A study including 120 twenty participants over the age of 14, showed a 5% tea tree oil shampoo showed a 41% improvement in overall symptoms (itchiness, redness, greasiness), however, scaliness was not significantly affected [2]
  • A lab study analyzing the anti-fungal potential of tea tree oil on various Malassezia yeasts showed an average MIC (minimum inhibitory concentration) of 0.25% for 90% of the yeast species [3] – significantly less effective than ketoconazole, but still satisfactory [4]

How To Use Tea Tree Oil for Seborrheic Dermatitis

There is a large variety of methods that can be used to implement tea tree oil into you seborrheic dermatitis fighting skin care regimen. The list below outlines each one and is in descending order of popularity. My comments on each method and how it worked for me can be found at the bottom in the “My Results” section.

Avoid Eye Contact
Tea tree oil can strongly irritate the eyes and should never be left on the skin near the eyes. Do not get the tea tree oil in your eyes! If you experience eye irritation please get the advice of a licensed health care practitioner.

Carrier Oil Mixed With Tea Tree Oil

The most popular and most widely used method is a simple mixture of carrier oil and tea tree oil.

A bottle of tea tre oil and text saying

General Instructions:

  1. Mix about 90 parts carrier oil with 10 parts tea tree oil (producing a 10% concentration) and apply to seborrheic dermatitis affected skin. If you find the concentration too strong, you can bring the percentage of tea tree oil lower (~5%).
  2. Leave the solution on the skin for 5-10 minutes
  3. Remove excess oil with a warm washcloth
Tea tree oil dilution diagram as per seborrheic dermatitis studies

If you find that your skin is overly greasy, you can use a gentle cleanser to remove the excess oil. However, cleansing after this method can take away from its effectiveness (surfactants found in cleansers can strip the skin and negatively impact skin barrier stability).

If you choose not to cleanse your skin and it’s your first time using oil on the skin, it will likely take time to adjust to the excess oil. As the skin adapt, you will find that things get easier (usually 1-2 weeks time).

Most popular carrier oils are coconut oil, sesame seed oil, or extra virgin coconut oil. The most popular carrier oil for seborrheic dermatitis is coconut oil, however, perhaps a pure mineral oil may make more sense from a technical point of view (natural oils contain lipids that the Malassezia yeast feeds on, mineral oil does not).

If you plan on using this method it is advised to start slow. At first, try a smaller concentration of tea tree oil on a very small area of skin. For example, you can start with a ratio of 95 parts carrier oil to 5 parts tea tree oil and apply this solution behind your ear (or any other non-visible area of skin). This can help you gauge how your skin reacts and help decide if this method is right for you.

Shampoo Containing Tea Tree Oil

This method is probably very popular due to its high availability and marketing associated with specific individual products.

Several different bottles of popular tea tree containing anti-dandruff shampoos

Shampoos containing tea tree oil are most commonly marketed as anti-dandruff shampoos. Since dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis are essentially the same conditions, these can also be considered anti-seborrheic-dermatitis shampoos.

Tea tree oil-containing shampoos are so widespread, you can even find reports of people implementing tea tree containing shampoos to combat seborrheic dermatitis on other parts of the body (mainly facial seborrheic dermatitis).

When using a tea tree containing shampoo please check the ingredients and try to choose one with the least number of ingredients possible (as a general rule of thumb). This will help ensure the purity of the shampoo and lessen the chance of allergies/irritation to other ingredients.

Just like the previous method, it is advised to start with a small non-visible area of the skin and see how you react. One such area is typically behind the ear or the scalp.

Many of the shampoos are most effective if left on the skin for about 5 minutes. This gives time for the tea tree oil to do its job. Once the time is up, simply rinse and wash off.

If you plan on using this method to control seborrheic dermatitis on the face. It is recommended to actually use conditioner instead as it is more moisturizing than shampoo.

Soap Containing Tea Tree Oil

This method is similar to the shampoo method above. Simply lather the tea tree oil infused soap on the skin affected with seborrheic dermatitis, leave it on for a few minutes, and rinse off.

A bottle of tea tree oil standing beside a bar of green soap

Once again, it is advised to go for soaps which contain a simple and short list of ingredients. This helps to minimize adverse reactions and improve effectiveness.

The reason why this method ranks below the shampoo one is that most soaps are very drying, especially if left to soak into the skin. Dry skin will greatly accelerate the flaking caused by seborrheic dermatitis and this can be counter-productive to the primary goal of treatment.

Then why not rinse off immediately? Well, it’s because the tea tree oil needs time to successfully kill the yeast/fungi which are causing seborrheic dermatitis. Accordingly, I believe a tea tree oil infused soap is not the best for treatment of seborrheic dermatitis.

Broad Range Anti-fungal Soap Containing Tea Tree Oil

There are also specialty anti-fungal soaps on the market. Many of which contain tea tree as one of the key antifungals. These soaps typically also include things such as neem oil, peppermint oil, and other popular anti-fungal essential oils.

The biggest problem with this particular method is that a wide combination of anti-fungal essential oils is often far too strong for seborrheic dermatitis affected skin. In addition, this wide assortment of anti-fungal ingredients increases the chance of an adverse reaction.

If you plan on using this method please follow the instructions included on the packaging of your particular soap. Once again, it’s recommended to test the soap on a small patch of skin not easily visible. Also, it’s advised, that you try diluting your first lather with extra water.

Tea Tree Oil Water Facial Rinse

This method is the least likely of the above to have adverse effects. Simply mix a few drops of pure tea tree oil in about a half cup of purified water (purified either through boiling or through reverse osmosis). Then simply take this solution and gently apply it to the skin using your finger.

Since tea tree oil and water don’t mix well, you’ll find that the mixture will separate quickly. Be ready to keep mixing if the application is going to take a considerable amount of time.

Do not overly massage it into the skin, just simply dab it on. Try to thoroughly cover the skin affected by seborrheic dermatitis. Once you have used up all of the solutions, you can either rinse the skin with cold water (less effective) or leave it on to air dry (more effective). Rinsing off, however, will help minimize any adverse effects you may have.

Clay Mask Infused with Tea Tree Oil

Another method for fighting seborrheic dermatitis with tea tree oil is in the form of a clay mask. For this method, you will need to purchase a clay mask product (bentonite clay masks are very popular) and a small bottle of tea tree oil.

Prepare the clay mask according to the instructions listed on the packaging and simply add a few drops of tea tree oil. Once the tea tree oil is mixed in, simply continue with the directions provided on the clay mask packaging.

Keep an Eye on Application Time
Applying tea tree oil to the clay mask will likely increase it’s drying effect, thus it’s recommended that you apply the mask for a shorter amount of time than specified.

This method has the benefit of allowing the tea tree oil to deeply penetrate seborrheic dermatitis affected skin. In turn, this allows its anti-fungal properties to really do their job.

My Personal Results with Using Tea Tree Oil to Combat Seborrheic Dermatitis

After trying all the solutions outlined above, tea tree oil did not prove to be a lasting solution for my seborrheic dermatitis.

The most effective method of application was the carrier oil one. It worked wonderfully for a short period of time (roughly about two weeks). After the first application, I was truly amazed and thought my seborrheic dermatitis problems will be a thing of the past. However, as time went by, this method lost its effectiveness and actually started to irritate my skin.

After the initial success of the carrier oil method, I went on to try all the other methods outlined above. None of them were any more successful than the carrier oil method. Many actually did solve the flaking and dryness issues, but in return, they left my skin red and inflamed.

Perhaps, I overused tea tree oil and my skin started to treat tea tree oil as an allergen. Perhaps, it did something to my natural skin biology and the anti-fungal effect was just too strong for regular application. To this day I am unsure why it abruptly stopped working and instead started to agitate my skin.

Summary and Conclusion

Based on the possibility that tea tree oil may solve your seborrheic dermatitis issues and my own personal experience (tea tree oil did work tremendously well during the first weeks of use), I recommend that anyone suffering from seborrheic dermatitis give it a try.

  1. Seborrheic dermatitis is thought to be the result of an immune response to the by-products of a common yeast that resides on the skin’s surface
  2. Tea tree oil is believed to help relieve seborrheic dermatitis thanks to its antifungal properties that reduce Malassezia numbers
  3. Several small-scale studies have confirmed tea trees potential in seborrheic dermatitis treatment, but effectiveness is reported to be lower than commercial agents
  4. Application of diluted tea tree oil with a carrier oil low in oleic acid is the common way to utilize tea tree oil
  5. The typical concentration of tea tree oil is 5-10%; starting at a lower concentration is recommend to see how the skin responds
  6. Commercial products that contain tea tree oil can easily be found in most stores and online marketplaces
  7. Other approaches to integrating tea tree oil include a clay mask, facial rinse and anti-fungal soaps that contain a variety of additional essential oils

Maybe tea tree oil is exactly what your skin needs in its fight against seborrheic dermatitis. Feel free to give a try. If it works for your skin, make sure to leave some details in the comments below for other readers who plan on treating seborrheic dermatitis with tea tree oil.

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About Michael Anders

After being affected by seborrheic dermatitis, I have made it my goal to gather and organize all the information that has helped me in my journey.