What’s the scoop on tea tree oil? It’s popping up everywhere!
Many of us are familiar with tea tree oil, as it’s an increasingly popular ingredient in many horse grooming products. I've even seen it on the shelves of some grocery stores and health food shops. But is it safe to just buy a bottle and start dabbing it on your horse?
The short answer is NO, don't just buy a bottle and start dabbing. The long answer is also NO, but the details follow in case you are curious. However, there are some tea tree concoctions that are totally safe for horses, but undiluted tea tree oil can be pretty gnarly.
Tea tree oil comes from the Melaleuca alternafolia plant, found in Australia. It is commonly used to help clear up bacterial and fungal infections, and there is great antidotal information about its use on horses to fight rain rot, thrush, cuts/scrapes, and even scratches and ringworm.
There are two ingredients to be aware of in this essential oil, 1,8-cineole and terpinen-4-ol. Australian standards (incidentally the only country with standards for tea tree oil) dictate the 1,8-cineole to be about 15% and the terpinen-4-ol to be about 30% or more. You should also know that the 1,8-cineole is a very serious irritant and exposure to air increases the risk of allergic reactions and irritation. The exposure to air, light, and heat increase the breakdown of components of the oil and increase their tendency to irritate and cause more problems. (Which I interpret to mean that keeping a bottle at the barn is probably not a super good idea.)
You should also know that tea tree oil is very toxic, and if ingested, can lead to lethargy, confusion, diarrhea, and even coma and death. So, if you use it topically on your horse, be darn tooting sure it's formulated correctly AND he won’t lick it. Tea tree oil is also crazy toxic to cats, so be sure Fluffy the barn mascot won’t be touched by it. (You should also avoid this stuff at all costs if you are pregnant or nursing.)
Here’s where it gets even more unclear/fuzzy/risky. There have been no large scale clinical trials done on tea tree oil use for humans or horses. There have been a few small trials done on humans, but no small ones done on horses.
Not much info on the specifics here... suspect...
Adding to the confusion, some manufacturers don’t label the percentages of 1,8-cineole and terpinen-4-ol, so you can’t be sure of the quality of the oil you are buying.
Here’s the other problem I ran into. There is ZIPPO research on the appropriate dilution of oil to use for horses. The general idea is about 5% for people, and anything over 10% for people and you are walking a fine line between benefit and your skin blistering and peeling off. There is some non-scientific information that I found about the percentages to use on horses, but since no sources said the same thing, I’m not going to pass on this confusing mess.
So, in a nutshell, you will never find me with a bottle of pure tea tree oil. You will, however, find me with bottles of shampoos or ointments or sprays that contain tea tree oil. And only because I know they have been lovingly created by reputable manufacturers to exacting and precise standards. (I am not a reputable manufacturer, and there is no way I would trust myself to concoct and store a dilution of this stuff!)
I have used wonderfully manufactured products that contain tea tree oil, and not only do I love the smell, I love how they work in conjunction with a treatment plan outlined by a Veterinarian.
Just to be perfectly clear - I am not saying “I hate tea tree oil.” I’m actually saying “I like tea tree oil, I have used it and it can help. I just think it’s best for us as horse owner folks not to mess with it.” And, as with all things bacterial and fungal that we would want to use tea tree oil for, please consult with your Veterinarian before you do any treatment plan.