The Most Essential Oils

To build a toolkit of natural remedies, start with neem, oregano, and tea tree oils

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Clear up your pimples. Soothe a sore throat. Banish a yeast infection. Delouse.

It's hard to believe that three simple oils can do all that, but recent research (combined with centuries of use) has found that tea tree, neem, and oregano oils fight a number of maladies, from the serious to the mundane. And because they're highly concentrated—just one drop equals about 30 cups of herbal tea, for instance—a small bottle goes a long way.

No wonder they're called essential oils.

TEA TREE OIL 
Melaleuca alternifolia 

Derived from the leaves of the Melaleuca tree and packed with the active ingredient terpinen-4-ol, tea tree oil is highly prized for its versatility. "I realized that I could do with one bottle of tea tree oil what three-quarters of the items in a drugstore do," says Cynthia Olsen, author of Australian Tea Tree Oil Guide (Kali Press, 1998). "I won't go anywhere without it."

Australian medical journals have documented the pungent oil's antiseptic and antibacterial properties since the late 1920s; it was standard issue in Australian military first-aid kits until World War II, when synthetic antibiotics took over. Today, with many "supergerms" resisting even the strongest antibiotics, tea tree oil is popular again. (Plant oils are believed to suffocate bacteria, which is why they don't become resistant.) University of East London microbiologists are studying its effectiveness against Staphylococcus aureus, a dangerous pathogen found in hospitals; a 1995 study found that the oil killed the bacterium in test tubes.

For at-home use, tea tree oil is great for disinfecting minor cuts, abrasions, and burns. And it makes a highly effective, nontoxic lice remedy. If your kids come home from school with the tiny buggers, use 6 drops of tea tree oil, 5 drops of eucalyptus oil, and 6 drops of lavender oil mixed in 2 ounces of almond or olive oil to saturate their hair and scalp. Cover with plastic for two hours, then comb with a special nit comb and wash. Repeat daily until the lice are gone.

Gargling twice daily with a few drops of tea tree oil in warm water relieves sore throats. Rubbed on the nose and forehead, it alleviates head congestion. A few drops on the chest and back break up a phlegm cough.

Tea tree oil is also an effective acne fighter. A 1990 study by Lederle Laboratories and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Great Britain found that a 5 percent tea tree oil gel was as effective as benzoyl peroxide in treating acne and that it caused less drying, stinging, and redness. Use a commercially prepared ointment, available in natural health stores, or dab undiluted oil on pimples.

Tea tree oil's antifungal properties are well documented. A double-blind study published in Journal of Family Practice (June 1994) found that pure tea tree oil relieved nail fungus as effectively as 1 percent clotrimazole, a topical antifungal drug. And in 1985, researchers at the University of Paris studied 28 women who used tea tree oil suppositories to combat Candida albicans, the common yeast infection. After one month, 21 women showed a complete recovery. To try it yourself, dilute a few drops of tea tree oil in a spoonful of water, put the mixture on a tampon, and insert it for 24 hours. First, though, rub a small amount of the oil on your inner arm to make sure you're not allergic to it.

NEEM OIL 
Azadiracta indica 

India's neem tree is affectionately called "the village pharmacy." Packed with nimbin and nimbidin, which are prized for their antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, antihistamine, antiseptic, spermicidal, and immune-system-stimulating properties, neem is said to do everything from repelling insects to preventing pregnancy. "It's a great family first-aid herb," says Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, a Seattle herbalist and co-author of Herbal Defense (Warner Books, 1997).

Neem's role in medicine predates the codification of India's natural healing system, Ayurveda; indeed, its uses were documented in the ancient texts on which Ayurveda is based.

It is found primarily in topical health and beauty products, where its strong scent (akin to raw garlic or burnt coffee) is often masked by more pleasant oils. Although few studies have been done, 4,500 years of continued use bear out its efficacy. Added to toothpaste and mouthwash, it prevents cavities and gingivitis; in creams (containing at least 25 percent neem oil), it combats vaginal infections and sexually transmitted diseases; in soaps and shampoos, it kills lice, ringworm, and scabies; mixed with equal parts vegetable oil and water, it makes a healing soak for athlete's foot; undiluted, it repels fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, and flies. And test-tube and human studies done at India's Defense Institute of Physiology and Allied Science found that neem oil, mixed with Indian soap nut extract and quinine, was nearly 100 percent effective as a spermicide.

Ayurveda says that skin conditions are the result of excess sugar in the body, so neem's bitterness is used to restore balance. The oil also contains fatty acids, which build collagen, promote wound healing, and maintain skin elasticity. It is considered as effective as cortisone for psoriasis. To use it, wash the affected area with neem soap, then apply a cream with at least 1 percent neem oil. For lice and scabies, use neem shampoo, then add a neem cream to the hair and scalp, leave it on overnight, and comb through with a nit comb before washing it out. (Try the same routine, minus the nit comb, for dandruff.)

Although other parts of the neem tree can be safely consumed (tea is made from the leaves and bark), it's best not to ingest the oil: Long-term use has been linked with liver dysfunction.

OREGANO OIL 
Origanum vulgare 

Not to be confused with the dried herb you put on pizza and pasta, wild mountain oregano (a highly aromatic member of the mint family found only in the Mediterranean area) is a potent remedy for skin and fungal conditions, chronic pain, insect bites, even nasty summer colds. Its powerful properties—antiseptic, antibacterial, antiparasitical, antiviral, analgesic, and antifungal—are attributed to the active ingredient carvacrol.

For most skin problems, Cassim Ingram, author of The Cure Is in the Cupboard: How to Use Oregano for Better Health (Knowledge House, 1997), recommends applying 1 drop of oregano oil to the affected area or soaking a cotton ball with oil and taping it in place overnight. You also can treat fungal infections, insect bites, and minor burns this way.

Oregano oil makes a good topical analgesic, too. According to a study conducted by Anadolu University in Turkey and published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, topical applications of oregano oil controlled chronic pain better than ibuprofen and nearly as well as morphine.

For yeast infections, a 1995 study published in Journal of Applied Nutrition found that the carvacrol contained in a 1 percent concentration of oregano oil effectively killed the bacteria Candida albicans. One caveat: Oregano is very warming. "When the plant's phenols [a type of flavonoid], which are rich in oxygen, hit water, they create a hydrogen ion shift and produce heat," explains Ingram. "The heat reaction dehydrates germs and kills them, with no harm to the human tissues, although it could be uncomfortable." If you apply oregano oil to sensitive areas, dilute 1 to 2 drops in a teaspoon of olive oil first.

While many herbal companies tout internal uses, other herbalists say oregano oil is best used topically. "It contains harsh phenols," explains Mindy Green, director of educational services at the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colorado. "A skilled aromatherapist wouldn't encourage internal use or long-term use of oregano essential oil, which is potentially damaging to the liver and kidneys when it's taken at high doses for long periods of time. Oregano as an herb is fine."

Used wisely, tea tree, neem, and oregano oils may turn out to be indispensable additions to your first-aid kit. But when it comes to those minor mishaps and beauty emergencies, remember: A little dab'll do ya.

From  Vegetarian Times   (Aug. 1998). Subscriptions: $29.95/yr. (12 issues) from Box 420166, Palm Coast, FL 32142-9170.