Young woman wearing a cheongsam in Chinese tea
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Each year, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation, approximately 2 million Americans are diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer. If treated early, a minor cosmetic flaw is usually the only consequence and regular screenings will ensure prompt detection of recurrence. A promising topical treatment comes from a tree “down under,” otherwise known as Australian tea tree oil. Ask your dermatologist if this therapy is appropriate to complement your treatment plan.

Botanical Description

Tea tree oil, also known as melaleuca oil, is extracted by steam distillation from the branch tips and leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia, a species of tree native to eastern Australia. Traditionally, the herb is used internally to treat respiratory disorders and externally for acne, nail and skin infections, head lice, gum disease and burns. The use of tea tree oil against basal cell carcinoma and other forms of skin cancer is a relatively new application.


The oil of tea tree contains various terpinene compounds, including up to 45 percent terpinen-4-ol, up to 18 percent gamma-terpinene. Smaller amounts of 1.8-cineole, alpha-terpineol, alpha-pinene, limonene and p-cymol are also present. According to the “Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines,” there is extensive evidence that the terpinene fractions of tea tree are effective against a wide range of bacteria, yeast and fungi, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. According to a study published in the "Journal of Investigative Dermatololgy" in 2004, both the whole oil and the isolated compound terpinen-4-ol acts on cultured human skin cancer cells, including their drug-resistant components.

Effects on Basal Cell Skin Cancer

In a study published in the April 2010 issue of "Cancer, Chemotherapy and Pharmacology,” scientists from the University of Western Australia evaluated the effects of whole tea tree oil and terpinen-4-ol on two different lines of cultured skin cancer cells. The study team found that both agents significantly decreased tumor growth by interrupting the G1 cell cycle, the phase in which the “decision” to multiply or die is made. In November of the same year, the university scientists once again investigated the anti-cancer effects of tea tree, but this time in vivo, meaning inside the body instead of a petri dish. Although the bodies belonged to mice, tea tree oil demonstrated potent anti-tumor activity, even in drug-resistant tumors.

Safety Profile

According to the American Cancer Society, the internal use of tea tree oil is not recommended due to potential toxicity. Topically, the oil may cause skin irritation, especially in people with a known allergy to turpentine or pine oils, or other plants in the myrtle family, including eucalyptus, allspice and clove. Do not self-treat basal cell skin cancer without the approval and supervision of a qualified health care practitioner.