Paper presented at the ifeat international Conference ‘Australia and New Zealand: Essential Oils and

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Paper presented at the IFEAT International Conference ‘Australia and New Zealand: Essential Oils and 

Aroma Chemicals - Production and Markets’; Sydney, 2-6 Nov. 2003. Pages 29–40 in the Conference Proceedings. 




Richard L. Davis 

G.R. Davis Pty Ltd. 

29 Princes St., Riverstone, NSW 2765, Australia 

[  ] 



The Australian tea tree oil industry has charted a fascinating course over the last 50 or so years. From 

a beginning as a minnow, tea tree oil production expanded over the 1980/90s to become, in dollar 

terms, Australia’s largest essential oil export earner. 


As the 1990s drew to a close, however, the fortunes of the tea tree oil industry underwent a reversal. 

Production had shot past demand by upwards of 100% and the market price halved, and then halved 



The Tea Tree Plant 


The ISO standard for tea tree oil has the following rather dry title ‘Oil of Melaleuca; Terpinen-4-ol 

type’. Whilst any species of melaleuca that conforms to the standard can be traded as Australian tea 

tree oil, only one species, Melaleuca alternifolia, represents 99% of world trade. 


Melaleuca alternifolia 












Mature M. alternifolia in the bush 












Natural distribution of M. alternifolia 













A natural stand of M. alternifolia 













Young foliage 







Melaleuca alternifolia is a medium sized tree that occurs naturally in a very limited area of Australia, 

on the north coast of New South Wales (NSW) where it is restricted to the narrow plain between the 

coast and the dividing range. The tree occurs mainly in wetter areas and swamps, generally in fairly 

dense stands that often contain relatively few other species. 


Other, minor exploited species 


Two related species that are exploited commercially, albeit on a small scale: Melaleuca linariifolia and 

Melaleuca dissitiflora












Wild growing M. linariifolia 











Natural distribution of M. linariifolia 


Melaleuca linariifolia occurs in a similar area to M. alternifolia but extends further south. The low 

cineole type of Melaleuca linariifolia is similar in morphological form to M. alternifolia and, indeed, 

has been identified in plantations originally presumed to be pure M. alternifolia











Mature M. dissitiflora tree 












Natural distribution of M. dissitiflora  











Young plant 












M. dissitiflora foliage








M. dissitiflora also meets the tea tree oil standard. It occurs only in significant quantity in the Northern 

Territory. This species has a somewhat different morphological appearance; the leaves are slightly 

broader and the bark is less papery.  


The oil from M. dissitiflora is generally higher in terpinen-4-ol than M alternifolia, with natural 

populations containing up to 58% terpinen-4-ol. 


The Chemistry, Standards and Biological Activity of Tea Tree Oil 


Chemical composition 


As indicated by the title of the ISO standard, tea 

tree oil is rich in terpinen-4-ol, typically in the 

range of 35-42%. 1:8-cineole has also been noted 

as an important constituent, even though it rarely 

exceeds 5% in commercial oil.  


In the early days, 1:8-cineole was noted in order 

to distinguish the various chemotypes of tea tree 

oil available: low cineole (2 – 10%), high cineole 

(20-40%) and very high cineole (60%+). 


During the 1980s boom time, however, the 

cineole content of tea tree oil became an indicator 

of quality – the lower the better. Various reasons 

were given as to why cineole was supposedly 

detrimental to the oil, such as it being a skin 

irritant. This was despite much published 

information that cineole was not a skin irritant, 

including one report that named nearly all the 

components of tea tree oil other than cineole as 

being potential skin irritants. 


Typical gas chromatographic profile 

for Australian tea tree oil 


Components Min. 





1 6 

Sabinene Traces 



5 13 

Limonene 0.5 


0.5 8 

1,8-Cineole - 



10 28 

Terpinolene 1.5 5 

Terpinen-4-ol 30  48 


1.5 8 

Aromadendrene traces 




traces 3 

Globulol traces 

Viridiflorol traces 1 


Slowly, the industry realised that terpinen-4-ol was the main indicator of antimicrobial activity, or at 

least up to levels of 40%. Interestingly, none of the individual components of tea tree oil, including 

terpinen-4-ol, are as widely active as the whole oil. 




The publication of quality standards for tea tree oil commenced in 1949 with its inclusion in the 

British Pharmaceutical Codex. The first Australian standard was published in 1967. Improvements in 

analytical techniques combined with the increasing popularity of the oil on the world markets saw 

several new standards published, and existing standards revised. The first International Standard for 

tea tree oil was published in 1996, but with a substantial typographical error; the words minimum and 

maximum were reversed, so that the first ISO standard for tea tree oil set a maximum of 30% for the 

oils main constituent, terpinen-4-ol. 





The evolution of published standards for tea tree oil 


Year Origin Standard 


1949 British 


 Oleum Melaleuca 

1967 Australia AS 


Oil of Melaleuca alternifolia 

1972 Martindale 


Melaleuca oil 

1985 Australia  AS 


Oil of Melaleuca Terpinen-4-ol type 



FS T 75-358 

Huile essentielle de Melaleuca type 

1996 International 

Organisation for Standardisation 

ISO 4730 

Oil of Melaleuca Terpinen-4-ol type 

1996 Germany 



1997 Australia 



Oil of Melaleuca Terpinen-4-ol type 


World Health Organisation 





European Pharmacopoeia  


Tea Tree Oil, Melaleucae 


2002 International 

Organisation for Standardisation  


Oil of Melaleuca Terpinen-4-ol type 


Antimicrobial Activity  


In 1925, A.R. Penfold demonstrated that as an anti-microbial agent tea tree oil was 10 times more 

effective than carbolic acid in the then standard test of the day, the Rideal-Walker co-efficient. 

However, unlike carbolic acid, tea tree oil could be applied direct to the skin. With the discovery of 

both a safe and effective antimicrobial agent, commercial production commenced the very next year. 


The main benefit of tea tree oil is its antibacterial and antifungal properties. Various clinical studies, 

both in vitro and in vivo, have demonstrated the oil’s ability to control or kill a range of bacteria and 

fungi. At the same time, the oil is generally recognised as safe and a history of use on human skin 

going back over 70 years. 


Among its many uses, the single greatest attribute of the oil is its ability, via topical application, to 

control a range of antimicrobial problems, and to do this without slowing the healing process of the 

skin. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests tea tree oil often speeds the rate of skin healing, particularly 

for burns. 


Whilst tea tree oil has been incorporated into nearly any imaginable personal care and household item, 

its most popular product forms are: 

•  Pure bottled oil 

•  Antiseptic creams 

•  Acne preparations 

•  Tinea treatments 

•  Burn treatments 

•  Dental applications 

•  Antiseptic cleaners, wipes and disinfectants 

•  Sunburn Lotion 


The product boomed because it was both a natural product, and one that clearly worked. It is a 

powerful antimicrobial that is safe, or in this modern era - we must say relatively safe, to use on 

human skin. Unfortunately the industry now has a large and extremely expensive job ahead of it to 

convince the regulators that tea tree oil is indeed a safe and effective product for the control of a range 

of minor skin ailments.  






When Penfold first established the efficacy of the oil in 1925, he commenced an interest in tea tree oil 

research that continues to this day. Over the last 10 years, a careful process of assessing anecdotal 

evidence on various applications of the oil has been taken through laboratory tests to actual human 

trials. A larger focus of the work in recent times has been to establish the safety of the oil, particularly 

in regard to meeting the requirements of various regulatory bodies. 


Three recent medical research projects in Australia provide an interesting look at the sort of 

applications that are being studied: 

•  ‘Regulation of Immune Responses in Human Skin by Tea Tree Oil’ at Flinders University. 

It has been shown that single application of tea tree oil significantly reduced swelling 

following a histamine injection in human trials, while two applications lessened both 

redness and swelling compared to the control. 

•  ‘Antimicrobial activity of tea tree oil against oral micro organisms’ at the University of 

Western Australia. This study on the susceptibility of a range of oral bacteria to tea tree oil 

has shown that 162 isolates of bacteria were rapidly killed by tea tree oil at a concentration 

of 2%, with many being killed at concentrations down to 0.5% and lower. 

•  ‘Clinical efficacy of tea tree oil for treating cold sores’ - preliminary results of a human 

trial testing cold sore treatments on 214 patients indicate that tea tree oil can significantly 

reduce the size of cold sores. 


Production of Tea Tree Oil in Australia 


1926 to the 1970s 


Production of tea tree oil commenced in 1926 from natural stands on the North Coast of NSW. The 

main production areas were centred around the Grafton, Casino and Lismore areas. The trees were cut 

by hand, generally with cane knifes, and the crop was bagged for transport since the leaves tend to fall 

off on drying out. The oil was distilled in small ‘bush stills’. 














































Oil production levels varied from 2 to 20 tonnes / year, and it was not unusual for there to be extended 

periods – of several years – of very low demand. During these periods, many of the tea tree stands on 

private land were cleared for cattle grazing, and, hence, by the 1970/80s the most of the oil produced 

came from forest leases. 


During the early days the oil was used for the topical treatment of minor skin infections, cuts and 

abrasions, insect bites, fungal infections and sunburn. The oil was generally used in pure form from 

the bottle, or sometimes in mixture with alcohol. For a while it was incorporated in a mainstream 

product, Colgate’s Protex soap; however this product was dropped in the 1960s when floral rather than 

functional soaps became popular with marketing departments. 


The industry supplied tea tree oil to the US citrus industry on a couple of occasions during the 1970s. 

A couple of dry seasons had forced processors in Florida and California to import citrus from South 

America, but the South American oils did not contain terpinen-4-ol. As the US standard specified a 

minimum content of this component in citrus oils, tea tree was used as feedstock for terpinen-4-ol 

extraction, which was then added to the citrus oil, so that this oil would meet the US standard for ‘pure 

citrus oil’.  


The 1980s boom period 


The world wide rise in interest for natural products in the early 1980’s combined with a new 

marketing campaign both in Australia and in the USA saw demand for tea tree oil increase at a 

dramatic pace. Whilst the initial increased demand was met by bringing in new bush areas, it soon 

became apparent that plantations would need to be established to ensure an even supply of oil. 









1982 1984 1986 1988 1990 1992 1994 1996 1998 2000


















Price, world ports 

(AU$ /kg)

Market price vs. annual production of 

Australian tea tree oil, 1982-2000
















At the start of the tea tree boom, prices were floating around the $12 - $15/kg level. Within three years 

the price had doubled, and in another two years it doubled again. Many new entrants poured into the 

industry, and it was an exciting period. In the headlong rush to make their fortune in the tea tree gold 

rush, new entrants poached lease areas, stole oil and improved their margins by filling the bottom of 

drums with water. 





Many of the new entrants at this time had no knowledge of essential oils, chemistry or even agriculture. 

The first wave of ‘corporate’ plantation establishment commenced, with plans to plant tea tree from 

one side of the country to the other. However, many of the early plantations failed and many an 

investor lost their entire investment.  


The 1990s 


By the mid 1990s the industry had matured, the price was high, plantation management skills had 

increased substantially and the smart operators made substantial profits. This was the real peak for the 

industry, the oil was proving to be exceedingly popular on world markets, new products were being 

introduced and the research community was validating the anecdotal claims of oil efficacy. The future 

for the market was unlimited! 


Then the industry was hit with the second wave of corporate investment, only this time it was different. 

Experienced plantation managers could be hired, seedling propagation techniques had been perfected 

and harvesting and distillation technology was well advanced. The knowledge for large-scale 

plantation development was available, and thanks to a loophole in Australian taxation laws, so was the 

money. Massive plantations were planned and commenced. At a time when the total world market was 

less than 100 tonnes, several plantations set about to plant enough trees to produce over 1,000 tonnes. 


The inevitable fate for the industry of massive oversupply was prolonged by a second solid kick in the 

world market. From the mid 1990s to the year 2000, the market for tea tree oil increased to at least 300 

tonnes and possibly as much as 400 tonnes. Despite this spectacular market growth, production soon 

roared past demand, and prices collapsed. 



Market price vs. annual production of 

Australian tea tree oil, 1991-2003



















































Price, world ports 

(AU$ /kg)





















Modern production systems 


After 70 years of production of tea tree 

oil from natural bush stands, this part of 

the industry all but closed down.  


Today, close to 99% of tea tree oil 

comes from plantations located largely 

in the same geographic area as the 

natural stands, but also in areas of 

Queensland where tea tree did not 

previously exist. 


There are estimated to be 300 tea tree oil 

growers/distillers in Australia today, 

with plantations covering in excess of 

3,000 hectares in total. 


Production system summary (2003) 

Major producing areas 

Northern NSW (main), 

plus Queensland 

Wild trees as resource 


Plantations as resource 


Total plantation area 

3,000 ha 

# of growers / distillers 

Ca. 300 

Plantation size range 

3 – 1,000 ha 

Av. planting densities 

30,000 / ha 

Harvesting frequency 

Once per year 

Average oil yield 

150 kg/ ha / year 


Used for all operations 

on large plantations 



Plantation sizes vary from just a few hectares to over 1,000 hectares, with the bulk of the Australian 

production coming from the North Coast of New South Wales. 


20% of the producers account for around 80% of the total production of tea tree oil, and these figures 

clearly show the significance of large operations in the industry today. 


The common planting density is 30,000 trees per hectare and whilst all producers use some form of 

irrigation for seedling establishment, most rely on rainfall for subsequent moisture. The exception is 

the far north Queensland producers who routinely use irrigation for growth. 


Most producers take their first harvest 12 months after planting and, thereafter, on an annual basis. 

From the second harvest onwards, the industry oil yield averages about 150kg per hectare per annum 

for planting densities of 25,000 – 35,000 per ha. Yields can vary considerably from less than 100kgs 

per hectare to over 500kg per hectare, though both these extremes are unusual. 


The plants are harvested at soil level in order to produce a shredded stem, which encourages rapid 



The large producers: 

•  have adopted mechanisation of all field operations, including the planting of seedlings and 


•  employ tank vessels to receive the harvested crop and 

•  on arrival at the distillery, their tank lids are sealed and steam is injected to perform 



After distillation, the spent charge is dried. This dried residue is universally returned to the plantation 

and is applied as a mulch. 


Some companies also employ the dried spent charge as a boiler fuel. Only 15-30% of the dried, 

recovered spent charge is required to fuel the boiler furnace for another distillation. Hence, it is a fuel 

positive process. 





Modern large-scale planting and harvesting methods: 























Mechanised planting 












Irrigation of young plants 












Young growth 























Mechanical harvesting 

























Harvested plant 

Regeneration after harvesting 






Modern large-scale post-harvest methods: 























Transporting the crop to the distillery 























Tank cars being connected for distillation 





















Emptying spent charge  from tank cars 

Applying spent charge as field mulch 
























Spent charge fuelled steam boiler 








Oil sales by producers 


How producers market their oil is far more varied than how they grow it, and the full range of 

marketing options are utilised.  


In some instances, a producer sell oil to a local trader, who may sell to an overseas distribution agent, 

who will then sell to the end-user.  


Other growers sell their oil directly from the farm to the overseas buyer / end-user.  


Generally speaking: 

•  smaller growers (less than 5 tonnes per annum) tend to sell through traders or grower co-


•  larger growers (5 – 20 tonnes per annum) tend to do a mixture of both, and 

•  very large operators (20 – 100 tonnes+) usually do their own marketing. 


The Current Situation in the Industry 


Whilst the obvious result of overproduction has been the 70% reduction in price, there has been a 

possibly even more devastating result in the recent period. With massive overproduction came a 

desperate attempt to sell oil – virtually at any price. End-users saw the value of their stock fall almost 

monthly, and stopped committing to forward contracts. This reduction in purchasing pushed the 

selling frenzy even further – over a few short years the price halved, and then halved again. Tea tree 

oil had become a commodity. 


To further exacerbate the industry’s woes, another factor came into effect. Supermarket chains, 

particularly in Europe, decided to sell tea tree oil. They put out tenders for large quantities of oil at 

rock-bottom prices and then put oil on shelves at up to a quarter of the pharmacy/health food store 

price. At first consumers swapped from chemist to supermarket, so volumes were maintained and 

maybe even increased. However, what happened in this move was that tea tree oil was no longer being 

marketed – all the small chemists and health food shops had provided indications of use, often backed 

up with pamphlets and books extolling the virtues of the oil. The supermarkets simply put product on 

the shelves. Without the oil being actively promoted to consumers, demand eased. The supermarkets 

responded to the fall in demand by moving the oil from prominent shelves to lower shelves, further 

exacerbating the problem. 


Tea tree oil is no longer the ‘wonder from down under’. To drive sales in the natural products industry 

you need a new, exciting, preferably somewhat hard-to-get, slightly mysterious oil. You also need the 

oil to be promoted to the public – which is why it does so well in the natural health market and far less 

well in the cosmetic market where product competition is fierce. 


The Future 


Whilst tea tree oil might have lost its initial ‘excitement factor’, the oil is still as efficacious as it ever 

was, it is still popular and continues to be used in quite substantial volumes, certainly in excess of 300 

tonnes per annum. 


There is some very interesting and promising work being conducted on the oil. The increasing 

incidence of resistance to antibiotics in hospitals around the world is a major problem. Tea tree oil has 





shown good activity against Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (golden staph) and work is 

being conducted to determine whether early results can be clinically confirmed. In a completely 

different area, tea tree oil is also showing good results in industrial and agricultural applications. 


As work continues on applications for the oil, further market growth is almost inevitable, and 

Australia is well placed to capitalise on increased demand. Whilst tea tree oil is produced overseas, 

current price levels have kept further development in check. Of particular importance to Australia is 

the industry’s Tea Tree Breeding Project. Established 10 years ago, this project is delivering major oil 

yield and oil quality advantages to Australian producers, and will ensure Australia remains a 

competitive supplier of tea tree oil. 


Finally, I have been asked to comment on whether Australia will be the dominant supply source in 

2013. It is my view that it will be, and there are two main reasons for this opinion: 

•  Firstly, and despite having had close experience with the move of eucalyptus oil 

production from Australia to overseas many years ago, one of the reasons for Australia 

remaining a dominant supplier of tea tree oil is the increased attention these days to oil 

quality. Australia remains a supplier of eucalyptus oil on world markets because the 

quality of the oil is well recognised. However, many buyers swapped over to inferior 

eucalyptus oil in the days when price was more important than quality and, therefore, 

allowed other producing nations to get established. In the current market, buyers will not 

be buying inferior tea tree oil, and with ever increasing regulation on oil quality and safety 

I do not envisage this situation changing. 

•  The second reason relates to technology. Already, a fair amount of work has been done on 

various grades and types of tea tree oil. It is quite likely that particular oils may have 

increased efficacy for targeted applications. With the entire species resource located here 

in Australia, and a high quality tree breeding and cloning infrastructure already in place, 

Australia will be able to quickly respond to market opportunities requiring new oil types. 




Richard Davis is the son of Geoff Davis, founder of GR Davis Pty 

Ltd. Richard has been the managing director of the company since 

1985, and continues the company’s specialisation in the growing, 

distillation and rectification of essential oils, primarily eucalyptus 

and tea tree 















Document Outline

    • The Tea Tree Plant
      • Other, minor exploited species
        • Young plant
        • The Chemistry, Standards and Biological Activity of Tea Tree
          • Typical gas chromatographic profile
            • Standards
              • Title
              • Oleum Melaleuca
        • Production of Tea Tree Oil in Australia
  • 1926 to the 1970s
    • The 1980s boom period
      • The 1990s
        • Production system summary (2003)
          • Irrigation of young plants
            • Young growth
            • Mechanical harvesting
  • The Current Situation in the Industry
    • The Future

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