In vitro activity of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil on filamentous fungi and toxicity to human cells

Med Mycol. 2015 Apr;53(3):285-94. doi: 10.1093/mmy/myu072. Epub 2015 Jan 28.


Invasive fungal wound infections (IFIs) are increasingly reported in trauma patients and cause considerable morbidity and mortality despite standard of care treatment in trauma centers by experienced medical personnel. Topical agents such as oil of melaleuca, also known as tea tree oil (TTO), have been proposed for adjunctive treatment of IFIs. We evaluated the activity of TTO against filamentous fungi associated with IFIs by testing 13 clinical isolates representing nine species via time-kill assay with seven concentrations of TTO (100%, 75%, 50%, 25%, 10%, 5%, and 1%). To ascertain the safety of topical application to wounds, cell viability assays were performed in vitro using human fibroblasts, keratinocytes, osteoblasts, and umbilical vein endothelial cells with 10 concentrations of TTO (75%, 50%, 25%, 10%, 5%, and 10-fold serial dilutions from 1 to 0.0001%) at five time points (5, 15, 30, 60, and 180 min). Compatibility of TTO with explanted porcine tissues was also assessed with eight concentrations of TTO (100%, 75%, 50%, 25%, 10%, 5%, 1%, and 0.1%) at the time points used for cellular assays and at 24 h. The time-kill studies showed that fungicidal activity was variable between isolates. The effect of TTO on cell viability was primarily concentration dependent with significant cytotoxicity at concentrations of ≥ 10% and ≥ 50% for cells lines and whole tissue, respectively. Our findings demonstrate that TTO possesses antifungal activity against filamentous fungi associated with IFIs; furthermore that negligible effects on whole tissues, in contrast to individual cells, were observed following exposure to TTO. Collectively, these findings indicate a potential use of TTO as topical treatment of IFIs.

Keywords: Melaleuca alternifolia; cell viability; cytotoxicity; invasive fungal infection; tea tree oil.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antifungal Agents / isolation & purification
  • Antifungal Agents / pharmacology*
  • Antifungal Agents / toxicity*
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Survival / drug effects
  • Endothelial Cells / drug effects
  • Fibroblasts / drug effects
  • Fungi / drug effects*
  • Fungi / isolation & purification
  • Humans
  • Keratinocytes / drug effects
  • Melaleuca / chemistry*
  • Mycoses / microbiology
  • Osteoblasts / drug effects
  • Swine
  • Tea Tree Oil / isolation & purification
  • Tea Tree Oil / pharmacology*
  • Tea Tree Oil / toxicity*
  • Wound Infection / microbiology


  • Antifungal Agents
  • Tea Tree Oil