As you've probably noticed on Instagram, essential oils are used for lots of things. One in particular — tea tree oil — is one of the most commonly used essential oils for eye infections. As you're getting acquainted with alternative remedies, it's normal to feel apprehensive about side effects.
While you should never put tea tree oil directly into your eye on purpose, it's unlikely to cause permanent blindness if you accidentally get a little bit in there. If you're concerned, take the proper precautions to flush your eye out or get poison control on the phone and follow their recommendations.
It's unlikely that tea tree oil would cause blindness, but it can cause redness, irritation and eye watering. Although tea tree oil may help with certain eye conditions, you should never put it directly in your eye.
What Is Tea Tree Oil?
Tea tree oil, also sometimes referred to as melaleuca oil, comes from the leaves of the Australian tea tree, which is botanically classified as Melaleuca alternifolia. The Tisserand Institute notes that, like all essential oils, tea tree oil is 50 to 100 times more highly concentrated than the actual plant.
According to a May 2016 report in Contact Dermatitis, tea tree oil has a wide range of therapeutic properties. It's classified as antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal, anti‐inflammatory, anti‐tumoral, analgesic (or pain-relieving), insecticidal and acaricidal (which means it can kill ticks and mites). Because it's so well-rounded, it's also used to relieve the symptoms of a lot of conditions, like:
- Athlete's foot
- Nail fungus
- Insect bites
- Whooping cough
- Colds and flu
Tea tree oil is also used for a couple of different eye conditions. Researchers from a very small study that was published in Cornea in January 2012 found that massaging the eyelid with a diluted tea tree oil ointment reduced (or completely eliminated) itching in patients with ocular demodicosis (also known as eyelash mites). However, this study is both older and limited in scope, so further research is needed.
Another small study that was published in the Oman Journal of Ophthalmology in April 2018 looked at tea tree oil's effect on blepharitis, or inflammation of the eyelids, and meibomian gland dysfunction, which occurs when the tear ducts aren't working properly and is associated with dry eye syndrome.
They found that every patient receiving treatment with tea tree oil showed significant improvement in symptoms, while only 25 percent of patients who received standard treatment of eyelid massage and regular cleansing felt better. Similarly, though, this was a small study – one that needs further investigation to know how well tea tree oil helps.
Read more: 8 of the Best Essential Oils for Your Health
Using Tea Tree Oil Safely
While these studies are small, they do hint that tea tree oil may be one of the more promising essential oils for eyesight problems and conditions. But because it's natural, a lot of people are under the mistaken impression that it's not possible for tea tree oil to cause harm. While tea tree oil is safe when used correctly, it's a powerful plant extract that requires proper usage and precautions.
The first rule of thumb is: Never put tea tree oil in your eye. You can use it around the eye or on the lid if your doctor gives you the OK, but never put it directly inside the eye. Also important is making sure you're always diluting tea tree oil before use.
Since essential oils are so concentrated, it takes only a small amount to get the job done. For this reason, it's recommended that you dilute the oil in a carrier oil, like coconut oil or jojoba oil, by mixing the two together before applying it to the skin or eye area.
The study in Cornea used a 5 percent dilution, which means that, if you have 100 milliliters of jojoba oil, you only need 5 milliliters of tea tree oil. The specific dilution rate you should use depends on what you're using it for, so check with a registered aromatherapist to find out the perfect amount.
But sometimes, even when you're using the right precautions and despite your best efforts, some tea tree oil gets in your eye. The Tisserand Institute points out that this usually happens when you accidentally rub your eye with oily fingers or you accidentally grab a bottle of tea tree oil instead of eye drops. (Note: Keep them far away from each other to reduce your risk.)
When It's in Your Eye
So, what should you do if you accidentally get a little tea tree oil in your eye? Well, first of all, don't panic. It may cause a little stinging, redness or watering, but it's unlikely to cause any major problems like blindness, especially if you take care of it right away. As soon as you can, flush your affected eye with as much water as you can for 15 to 30 minutes. You can use a running faucet, kitchen sink sprayer or a shower head.
If only one eye is affected, the Mayo Clinic recommends aiming the water on your forehead over the eye to allow the water to run into it. If both eyes are affected, you can aim the water at the bridge of your nose. As you're flushing your eye (or eyes), look around in all directions to make sure that the water has contact with all areas of your eye. Try to keep your eye open as much as possible.
If you have contact lenses, take them out after five minutes of flushing (if they haven't fallen out already) and then continue to flush for the remaining 10 to 25 minutes. Avoid rubbing your eye, which can spread the oil and cause further damage. After you're done flushing, contact an emergency eye care specialist (like an ophthalmologist) or poison control. Explain what happened and then follow their advice from there.
Tea Tree Oil Side Effects
While blindness is unlikely to occur, it is possible for tea tree oil to cause side effects when used on the skin and around the eyes, especially if you don't dilute it before applying it. Some of these side effects may include:
- Skin irritation (itching, burning, scaling, redness, dryness)
- Allergic skin rash (dermatitis)
- Serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
Although most adverse skin reactions are mild, tree oil is highly toxic (especially to children) when swallowed. If you ingest tea tree oil, it can cause serious problems, such as:
- A lack of muscle control
- Loss of consciousness/fainting
If you, or a child, accidentally swallow tea tree oil, seek emergency medical attention immediately. Tea tree oil is also highly poisonous to pets, so keep it away from your animals.
- Contact Dermatitis: "Tea Tree Oil: Contact Allergy and Chemical Composition"
- Mayo Clinic: "Chemical Splash in the Eye"
- Cornea: "Treatment of Ocular Itching Associated With Ocular Demodicosis by 5% Tea Tree Oil Ointment"
- Tisserand Institute: "How to Use Essential Oils Safely"
- Oman Journal of Ophthalmology: "The Use of Tea Tree Oil in Treating Blepharitis and Meibomian Gland Dysfunction"
- Tisserand Institute: "What to Do in Case of Adverse Reaction"
- Mayo Clinic: "Tea Tree Oil"
- National Capital Poison Center: "Tea Tree Oil"
Lindsay Boyers is a holistic nutritionist with a Bachelor's degree in food and nutrition and a certificate in holistic nutrition consulting. She has a background in functional nutrition and 8 published books, including The Everything Guide to Gut Health, The Everything Guide to the Ketogenic Diet, and The Everything Guide to Intermittent Fasting.