Overview

You might have thought about using tea tree oil to soothe a red, itchy ringworm rash on your body or scalp. Tea tree oil comes from the leaves of the Australian Melaleuca alternifolia tree. It’s known for its antibacterial and antifungal properties.

Some research suggests tea tree oil might be useful for treating fungal infections like ringworm of the body or scalp, as well as athlete’s foot and nail fungus.

What is ringworm?

Ringworm is a fungal infection of the skin. It’s not related to an actual worm, but instead gets its name from the circular rash that forms on the skin of people who’ve been infected. Looking at pictures of ringworm may help you determine if you have this infection.

Ringworm is also known as tinea corporis — or tinea capitis if it’s on the scalp. It’s related to other fungal infections, including:

You can catch ringworm if you touch a person, animal, or personal item (such as a towel or sheet) that’s been infected with the fungus. The infection creates a red, itchy rash surrounded by a raised red circle that is worm-like in shape. However, ringworm isn’t a worm; it’s a fungus.

How does tea tree oil treat ringworm?

Tea tree oil has antifungal properties. It kills fungi like the ones that cause ringworm.

There have been very few well-designed studies of tea tree oil for treating fungal infections, and much of the research that does exist is more than 20 years old. But a 2004 review of seven clinical trials concluded that the treatment “holds some promise.” None of the studies specifically looked at tea tree oil for ringworm of the body or scalp, but they did investigate its use for other fungal conditions, like athlete’s foot.

One randomized controlled trial compared tea tree oil concentrations of 25 percent and 50 percent and an inactive treatment (placebo) in 158 people with athlete’s foot. Participants applied the solution to their feet twice a day. After a month, symptoms improved in around 70 percent of the people who’d used the tea tree oil, compared to less than 40 percent of those in the placebo group.

Nearly two-thirds of people who’d used the 50 percent tea tree oil solution had complete skin clearing. The main side effect was a skin rash, which developed in four people who used the tea tree oil.

An earlier study compared 10 percent tea tree oil cream with the antifungal cream tolnaftate and a placebo in 104 people with athlete’s foot. Tea tree oil and tolnaftate both improved symptoms like scaling, itching, and inflammation better than placebo, but none of the treatments cured the condition.

A more recent study found tea tree oil to be effective in treating other fungal infections like candida.

A couple of studies have looked at tea tree oil for treating nail fungus (onychomycosis). One study that included 60 people compared a combination of the antifungal drug butenafine and tea tree oil with placebo. After four months, 80 percent of people in the treatment group were cured, compared with 0 percent in the placebo group.

How to use it

Before applying tea tree oil — or any other ringworm treatment — check with your dermatologist to make sure it’s safe for you. Wash and dry your skin before you rub on the oil.

Use a sterile cotton ball, Q-tip, or cloth to apply a few drops of tea tree oil to your skin. Cover the entire rash with the oil. If your skin is sensitive, you can dilute the tea tree oil with a little bit of warm water.

Ringworm on the scalp

For ringworm on the scalp, apply a few drops of tea tree oil directly to the affected area. You can also mix a few drops into your shampoo and wash your hair and scalp with it. Here’s what you need to know about using tea tree oil on your hair.

Watch your skin for any signs of irritation. If you develop any new redness or bumps, stop using tea tree oil and see your dermatologist.

Other ringworm treatments

The main treatment for ringworm is an over-the-counter antifungal cream like clotrimazole (Lotrimin AF) or terbinafine (Lamisil AT). Generally, you’ll apply these products twice a day for about two to four weeks.

If you have ringworm on a large area of your body, your doctor may prescribe an oral antifungal pill.

Ringworm of the scalp is treated with a prescription medication such as griseofulvin, which is available in tablet, capsule, or liquid form. You may also need to use an antifungal shampoo. Because ringworm is very contagious, your doctor might recommend that people who live with you use the medicated shampoo, too.

The takeaway

Antifungal creams or pills can clear up ringworm within a few weeks. Tea tree oil hasn’t been proven to treat ringworm, but there’s no harm in trying it unless your skin is sensitive to it.

For the best odds of getting clear skin, take your antifungal medication exactly as your doctor prescribes it, or as the package instructions direct. It might take a few weeks of use to fully clear your skin. If your skin doesn’t improve or gets worse, go back to your doctor to discuss other treatment options.

Do not confuse tea tree oil with tea tree essential oil, which is much stronger and more volatile, and should not be applied directly to the skin without being diluted in a massage oil like sweet almond oil.

If you’ve been infected with ringworm, be careful not to spread the fungus. It can live on household items like clothing and bedding. Don’t share any personal items until the infection has fully cleared.