Tea tree oil is in an ever growing amount of “natural” products and the cloth diapering community has grown quite fond of it. Essential oils are an amazing resource and Tea Tree Oil (TTO or Melaleuca) has some wonderful properties including treatment against bacteria (including staph and MRSA), viruses, fungal infections, and yeast. This is great news for the cloth diapering community since parents are often concerned about how to sanitize their children’s diapers after they have come into contact with or are exhibiting symptoms that they have been exposed to one of the above listed “bugs”.
I read lots of suggestions from moms on message boards and Facebook posts suggesting that parents add a few drops of TTO to sanitize their diapers. This sounded great to me and I had used it several times until I ran in to a post suggesting that a few drops of TTO would not be a high enough concentration when washing to kill all the “bugs”. Why would this be a huge concern? If you don’t kill bacteria completely, then there is a chance that they will grow and adapt to your current treatment, forming super bacteria. This is why doctors don’t want to give you an antibiotic every time you come in to their office sick. If you are sick with a virus, and antibiotic will do nothing for you and overuse of antibiotics (or incomplete use) can lead to stronger bacteria. So, in search of a proper TTO to water dilution, I scoured the internet searching for study based facts. I found very little. Who has the money to create studies? Large companies (mostly pharmaceutical) and universities have the funding and resources to create studies that they need or deem important. How many cloth diapering parents out there are funding research? This means that there are no direct studies of TTO’s effectiveness during laundering. Does that mean that we can’t find an answer? Not necessarily.
Just this week I had lunch with a friend I used to work with who knows more than I do about essential oils. I had questions and knew that many other moms had similar questions that we need fact based answers to. My friend Lisa referred me to Robert Tisserand, a world renowned essential oil expert, known for his fact based work with essential oils. Below is the email I sent him with my questions and his response:
(Here’s the boring explanation of who I am) “The cloth diapering community has run into a bit of controversy regarding the use of Tea Tree Oil to kill microbes including bacteria commonly found in feces, yeast, viruses shed in feces and in rare cases, mold (usually related to improper storage).
Many moms have been recommending a few drops of TTO when laundering diapers. This has been disputed, suggesting that such a dilution can cause bacteria resistance and growth of super bacteria.
I would love your suggestions of dilution ratios (TTO/water) as well as your opinion as to the effectiveness of straight TTO in laundry. I am concerned first with the fact that the oil may not distribute evenly because of oil/water relationship as well as the fact that most parents wash their diapers on a warm or hot setting. I am fairly new to EO use and properties, but I was under the impression that EOs loose their antimicrobial properties when heated.
If you have any suggestions as to how parents may treat their diapers properly and most effectively with essential oils (or grapefruit extract – which is another cloth diaper users favorite tool), I would greatly appreciate your assistance. For example, would it be more effective to soak diapers in a particular dilution of oil/cold water after washing them, followed by another rinse to prevent any skin irritation?
I would love to be able to reference articles to support your suggestions!
Thank you so much for taking the time to assist the cloth diapering community!”
This is an interesting question!
As for resistance, with either tea tree oil (TTO) or other essential oils, it’s a non-issue. There are one or two research papers suggesting that TTO might cause resistance, but the bulk of the evidence shows the opposite, and any resistance is slight and transient.
But tea tree oil is very effective at both killing (in high concentrations) and preventing virulence (in low concentrations) of MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus).
These properties of essential oils have given rise to their increasing use in food packaging (to prevent bacterial growth) and as “growth-promoters” in farmed animals, instead of antibiotics.
Three or four drops of tea tree oil is enough for a laundry load, added to the soaking cycle. The warm or hot setting is not an issue, so long as the diapers are in an enclosed space. Heating essential oils does not damage them (they are steam distilled at the boiling point of water) nor does it alter their antibacterial properties. The essential oil might evaporate, but it’s just as effective in vapor form as in liquid form.
You are right about dissolution – essential oils mix very poorly with water, but the physical action of a washing machine tends to break up the essential oil into very tiny droplets. During rinsing and drying, the essential oil will be mostly lost (which is a good thing – you don’t want any risk of skin irritation) with only traces remaining.
I hope this is helpful!
To specify what he meant by the longest soak cycle I clarified and Robert replied that it should work well to add the TTO where your washer suggests to pour bleach. It will then have at least 2-3 rinses to be removed from your diapers prior to use.
So, for anyone conflicted about using TTO, go for it! It would be a great addition to your laundry routine especially if your little one has experienced any sort of stomach virus, if your diapers aren’t smelling clean (check your detergent amount also) after they are washed, or if you have any reason to suspect that your little one has an infection. Do note that TTO will not fix all rashes and will have no effect on diapers suffering from ammonia buildup or repelling due to excess detergent. Please see your doctor for questions regarding diaper rash so that they may swab the rash and tell you if the rash may be due to a “bug” or not. I hope this brings you as much peace of mind about using TTO as it has brought to me.
*Please note that it is important to purchase undiluted TTO to maintain effectiveness.*