Effects of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) essential oil and the major monoterpene component terpinen-4-ol on the development of single- and multistep antibiotic resistance and antimicrobial susceptibility

Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2012 Feb;56(2):909-15. doi: 10.1128/AAC.05741-11. Epub 2011 Nov 14.


This study examined the effect of subinhibitory Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) essential oil on the development of antibiotic resistance in Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli. Frequencies of single-step antibiotic-resistant mutants were determined by inoculating bacteria cultured with or without subinhibitory tea tree oil onto agar containing 2 to 8 times the MIC of each antibiotic and with or without tea tree oil. Whereas most differences in resistance frequencies were relatively minor, the combination of kanamycin and tea tree oil yielded approximately 10-fold fewer resistant E. coli mutants than kanamycin alone. The development of multistep antibiotic resistance in the presence of tea tree oil or terpinen-4-ol was examined by culturing S. aureus and E. coli isolates daily with antibiotic alone, antibiotic with tea tree oil, and antibiotic with terpinen-4-ol for 6 days. Median MICs for each antibiotic alone increased 4- to 16-fold by day 6. Subinhibitory tea tree oil or terpinen-4-ol did not greatly alter results, with day 6 median MICs being either the same as or one concentration different from those for antibiotic alone. For tea tree oil and terpinen-4-ol alone, day 6 median MICs had increased 4-fold for S. aureus (n = 18) and 2-fold for E. coli (n = 18) from baseline values. Lastly, few significant changes in antimicrobial susceptibility were seen for S. aureus and S. epidermidis isolates that had been serially subcultured 14 to 22 times with subinhibitory terpinen-4-ol. Overall, these data indicate that tea tree oil and terpinen-4-ol have little impact on the development of antimicrobial resistance and susceptibility.

MeSH terms

  • Culture Media
  • Drug Resistance, Bacterial / drug effects*
  • Drug Resistance, Bacterial / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / drug effects*
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / growth & development
  • Humans
  • Melaleuca / chemistry*
  • Microbial Sensitivity Tests / standards
  • Monoterpenes / chemistry
  • Monoterpenes / pharmacology
  • Serial Passage
  • Staphylococcus aureus / drug effects*
  • Staphylococcus aureus / genetics
  • Staphylococcus aureus / growth & development
  • Staphylococcus epidermidis / drug effects
  • Staphylococcus epidermidis / genetics
  • Staphylococcus epidermidis / growth & development
  • Tea Tree Oil / chemistry
  • Tea Tree Oil / pharmacology*
  • Terpenes / chemistry
  • Terpenes / pharmacology*


  • Culture Media
  • Monoterpenes
  • Terpenes
  • terpinenol-4
  • Tea Tree Oil