In the era of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it can be unnerving– not to mention painful!– to find out that you have a staph infection on your skin. Although antibiotic-resistant staph, or MRSA, was kept essentially confined to hospitals until recently, this superbug is now responsible for an alarming number of skin infections, so people with staph infections on their skin are often desperate to find alternative treatments. One increasingly popular treatment for staph infection is tea tree oil, a caustic plant-based oil known for its potent antibacterial properties. But does tea tree oil actually work to treat staph skin infections?
Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer to the question, because tea tree oil hasn’t been studied as extensively as antibiotics as a treatment for staph infections. There have been a few dozen studies on the use of tea tree oil for staph infections and they’ve yielded varying, but somewhat promising, results. We know undoubtedly that tea tree oil kills staph on nonliving surfaces (like countertops and bath tubs), but we know very little about how well it works in eliminating staph infections from people’s bodies.
One review, published in 2004, examined the findings of several studies and found some pretty encouraging results. People with skin infections caused by staph seemed to heal faster and more completely if they used topical tea tree oil, in addition to conventional treatments, to help their bodies fight the infections. The tea tree oil tended to cause few side effects, so there didn’t seem to be much risk behind giving it a try. Ultimately, the authors of the review thought that tea tree oil was “promising” as a staph infection treatment, but said that we need more studies to find out the best and safest ways to use it.
Another review found that tea tree oil did indeed seem to help combat staph infections– but, unfortunately, some of the studies in the review found that it wasn’t as good as antibiotics for eliminating the trace amounts of staph that continued living in the patients’ noses after they got over the initial infection (a common and chronic problem called colonization). The authors of the review concluded that we would need more studies before trying to use tea tree oil to completely rid a person’s body of antibiotic-resistant staph colonies.
It’s important to bear in mind that there have been few studies of tea tree oil alone as a treatment for staph infections on the skin. In general, because staph infections can get very severe very quickly, it’s not a good idea to use home remedies alone to self-treat them. If you have a staph infection on your skin– or believe that you might– it’s very important to get in touch with a qualified health care provider for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Your doctor can help you determine whether you have a staph infection, and can help you decide if it would be safe or appropriate to use tea tree oil to help combat the infection. Always defer to your doctor’s expertise when you believe you have any disease or condition.