User’s Guide to Treating Seborrheic Dermatitis with Tea Tree Oil

Frequently referred to as a natural and cost-effective treatment for seborrheic dermatitis, tea tree oil continues to grow in popularity. However, not everyone reports success and it may even lead to worsening for some.

Let’s start with some basics:

  • Malassezia yeast are believed to be integral to seborrheic dermatitis issues
  • Tea tree oil has antifungal properties and may reduce malassezia activity
  • Preliminary studies support tea tree oils effectiveness
  • You can obtain pure tea tree oil and add it to other products (or a carrier oil)
  • A large variety of dedicated products exist as well

And after dealing with seborrheic dermatitis myself, it became apparent the info on this topic is quite scattered. This article is my attempt to bring all the relevant information together and provide you with everything should know before you attempt treatment.

Hopefully you find the reading useful 🤞. And if you have any questions, suggestions, or experience with using tea tree oil, join the discussion at the end of this article.

Quick intro to seborrheic dermatitis

Below is a quick summary of the main factors of seborrheic dermatitis you should be aware of. If you are already very familiar with the condition, feel free to skip this section.

Seborrheic dermatitis is:

  • an inflammatory skin condition that is not yet fully understood
  • considered to be a chronic (can persists throughout life) skin condition
  • believed to be caused by the Malassezia yeast

Due to its chronic and not fully uncovered nature, seborrheic dermatitis usually requires ongoing treatment. And the primary focus treatment is almost always symptom relief.

Malassezia yeast:

  • are commensal yeast, naturally present on the skin surface of most humans
  • are also blamed for several other skin conditions
  • do not trigger symptoms in the majority of healthy adults
  • have many different individual sub-species
  • produce a by-product (oleic free fatty acids) which cause skin irritation

And some of the more prominent medical literature suggest it’s not the yeasts themselves that are to be blamed, but the oleic free fatty acids they leave behind. These by-products then lead to irritation and damage the skin’s natural barrier.

Yet, there are still many unanswerd questions that remain.

For example, more recent research suggests that bacteria may have a more pivotal role in once thought. And if you want to explore this subject further with me, take a moment to read through the What is Seborrheic Dermatitis section.

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) [1]. It’s 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’s a fairly affordable essential oil averaging about $10 for 150ml.

Tea tree oil is also added to many natural skincare products (shampoos, soaps, creams, etc.). Here, it’s most commonly used at a 5% to 10% concentration [2].

Many people believe that it’s most effective if it’s integrated as a pure essential oil. And the claims is that commercial products often undergo additional processing and may lose some vital healing properties. There isn’t any data to back this up and weather you chose to believe it is up to you.

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 [3]
  • 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 [1] – significantly less effective than ketoconazole, but still satisfactory [2]
Learn more about the standard antifungals used to treat seborrheic dermatitis
Most Common Medical Treatments - Antifungals
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Six ways tea tree oil is used for seborrheic dermatitis

There are several ways you can use tea tree oil to combat seborrheic dermatitis. The list below six of these methods and is ordered by popularity (from most popular to least popular).

My comments on each method and how it worked for me can be found at the bottom in the “my personal experience with tea tree oil” section. Plus, you can find many user submitted tips in the comments section at the end.

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

1. 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 tree oil and text saying - diluting pure tea tree oil allows for customized approach

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).

Start slow and see how your skin responds

If you plan on using this method, it is advised to start slow. Try a lower 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.

2. 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.

And while this article doesn’t include a list of recommended options, you can easily find a comprehensive top 10 list prepared by Chris over on Dandruff Deconstructed or by searching Amazon directly. In either case, the amount of options available for you to try continues to grow.

Off-label use is common
Use of tea tree oil-containing shampoos is so widespread, you can even find reports of people using tea tree containing shampoos to combat seborrheic dermatitis on other skin surfaces (for example, facial seborrheic dermatitis).

Seek minimal formulas with simply ingredients

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.

Don’t forget to start slow

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.

Time required for best results

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.

The downside to this, is that shampoos contain surfactants (the ingredients that provide the cleansing action). Surfactants are known irritants and may aggravate existing seborrheic dermatitis symptoms.

If you plan on using this method, you could also consider using a tea tree oil containing conditioner instead. It’s more moisturizing than a shampoo and could minimize the chance for irritation.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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 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.

6. 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.

Careful with 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 experience with tea tree oil

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.

Learn more about my personal struggle with seborrheic dermatitis
Chapter 1 - Introduction
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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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References

  1. K A Hammer, C F Carson, T V Riley "In vitro susceptibility of Malassezia furfur to the essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia." Journal of medical and veterinary mycology : bi-monthly publication of the International Society for Human and Animal Mycology 35.5 (1998): 375-7. PubMed
  2. K A Hammer, C F Carson, T V Riley "In vitro activities of ketoconazole, econazole, miconazole, and Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil against Malassezia species." Antimicrobial agents and chemotherapy 44.2 (2000): 467-9. PubMed
  3. Andrew C Satchell, Anne Saurajen, Craig Bell, Ross StC Barnetson "Treatment of dandruff with 5% tea tree oil shampoo." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 47.6 (2002): 852-5. PubMed
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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.

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