Aims: This study compared the antimicrobial activity of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil with that of some of its components, both individually and in two-component combinations.
Methods and results: Minimum inhibitory concentration and time-kill assays revealed that terpinen-4-ol, the principal active component of tea tree oil, was more active on its own than when present in tea tree oil. Combinations of terpinen-4-ol and either gamma-terpinene or p-cymene produced similar activities to tea tree oil. Concentration-dependent reductions in terpinen-4-ol activity and solubility also occurred in the presence of gamma-terpinene.
Conclusion: Non-oxygenated terpenes in tea tree oil appear to reduce terpinen-4-ol efficacy by lowering its aqueous solubility.
Significance and impact of the study: These findings explain why tea tree oil can be less active in vitro than terpinen-4-ol alone and further suggest that the presence of a non-aqueous phase in tea tree oil formulations may limit the microbial availability of its active components.