Synthetic tea tree oil puts both cosmetics consumers and genuine suppliers at risk, producer claims

By Simon Pitman contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Tea tree oil, Essential oil

Jacqui Rathner, COO at Naturally Australian Products claims that the problem with tea tree oil has become so bad, “there is more adulterated oil being sold than the real McCoy".
Jacqui Rathner, COO at Naturally Australian Products claims that the problem with tea tree oil has become so bad, “there is more adulterated oil being sold than the real McCoy".
Synthetic and uncertified tea tree oil has been flooding the market for years now, and is cropping up in cosmetic products worldwide causing big problems for both consumers and manufacturers, a leading supplier of the ingredient claims.

Not only is this putting consumers off a long list of cosmetic and personal care products containing the ingredient, but it is also having repercussions for legitimate tea tree oil suppliers who are seeing their businesses threatened by the illegal synthetics, claims Jacqui Rathner, chief operating officer at Naturally Australian Products, a company that produces and supplies ecoVirgin certified tea tree oil from Australia.

Rathner points out that the synthetic oil is mostly coming from China and exported to India; but it is also coming from the US, and other parts of the world, where it is either blended with Australian Tea Tree oil and resold as Australian Tea Tree oil as well as being re-exported as is to suppliers in Europe and the US.

How to spot the real thing from the fake...

“I really think there is more adulterated oil being sold than the real McCoy. If you are purchasing tea tree oil, whether in any product as a consumer or to include as an ingredient in any product as a formulator, it is essential to make sure there is a high profile and recognised trade organisation’s seal on the oil you purchase,”​ said Rathner in an exclusive interview with Cosmetics Design.

Naturally Australian Products has overseen laboratory testing on oils labelled “tea tree Chinese Melaleuca Alternifolia​ Essential Oil” that have clearly indicated the inclusion of synthetic compounds, which basically means it can no longer be marketed as a pure essential oil.

“These synthetics invariably contain the same 15 main compounds found in the Tea Tree Oil Australian Standard and ISO 4730 Specification, the difference being they are synthetic compounds,”​ Rathner said.

“Unfortunately the ‘Australian Standard’ is only designed to measure compliance to that standard and does not indicate the inclusion of testing for synthetics. These standards were put into place before the Chinese suppliers came to the table.”

tea tree oil harvested
Tea tree oil being harvested in its native Australian habitat

The problem with tea tree oil not grown in its native environment

But as well as synthetic tea tree oil, there are also significant issues concerning tea tree oil that is not grown in its native environment.  In fact, the Melaleuca Alternifolia​ tea tree plant that is commonly grown in China, India and, particularly, South Africa often has no resemblance to the physical appearance of true Melaleuca Alternifiolia​ grown in its indigenous habitat of Bungawalbin Valley, in New South Wales, Australia. Any true therapeutic values of the non-Australian, transplanted crops are presently unknown.

“When Melaleuca Alternifolia is grown out of its native environment it has to be fed many types of agricultural fertalisers and soil conditioners which are non-organic substances, a process that ultimately adulterates the resulting oil and affects its composition significantly,"​ said Rathner.

Naturally Australian Products consistently works within the Australian Tea Tree Oil Standard (at specific minimum and maximum levels) and ISO 4730 Specification, which outlines 15 main compounds.

For the consumer, these adulterated or synthetic ingredients can be seriously detrimental inclusions, as allergic reactions are almost impossible to predict and likewise the efficacy of the product can be significantly compromised.

Consumers don't know what they are getting themselves into

“Instead of helping a person with dandruff, the synthetic may actually cause dandruff or a similar skin irritation or can just plain burn someone’s skin,”​ said Rathner .

We asked the question how is it that many companies are able to pass off the synthetic ingredients and claim them to be based on tea tree oil. Put simply, Rathner says that what many of these companies are doing is completely fraudulent and misleading, which ultimately means that it is false representation.

“They should not by law be making this claim. The meaning of an essential oil is completely oil of plant, period. To expand on this, an essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants. Not synthetics.

“We have already shown that if further testing were to be carried out by an accredited laboratory on the synthetic or adulterated oil, it would reveal huge differences between the genuine 100% Australian Tea Tree Oil on the market and the adulterated oil,”​ said Rathner.

What this is doing to legitimate tea tree oil suppliers

Naturally all of this is doing a lot of damage to legitimate tea tree oil suppliers, and although suppliers of the adulterated ingredients are profiting, in the longer-term the damage is likely to put more pressure on cosmetic companies to seek out legitimate sources.

“If the farmer is offering you a price on quantity that is higher than you are paying from a secondary supplier that may be an indicator to check on quality. There are ingredient suppliers who know they are buying adulterated oil, but buy on price. In simple terms, they do not care. They only want to be able to put a price out there to pick up orders as they know that people buy on price,”​ said Rathner.

“The companies that blend tea tree oil are making a fortune, misleading the wholesale segment of business and the public whilst creating a situation where the farmers have a hard time selling 100% genuine Tea Tree Oil at the farm gate price.

“A few years ago many tea tree farms closed their doors and turned to farming other crops. Now, as awareness of the adulterated oil grows in the world market there will be a growing need to expand the farms in Australia.”

Certified tea tree oil
Naturally Australian Products ecoVirgin certified tea tree oil

How to solve the problem...

Rathner believes that all cosmetics companies should be following the lead of the high end players by conducting carbon dating C14 tests to reveal if there are any synthetics in an oil, something she says should be an industry standard.

Likewise, she also believes that suppliers of adulterated tea tree oil should be dealt with accordingly.

“We would like to see them and their practices thoroughly exposed and sanctioned with appropriate penalties from industry and consumer protection agencies. It is also a wider issue in essential oils than just with tea tree oil.

“Working with natural ingredients that people apply to their skin, that are supposed to benefit the end consumer, their health and wellbeing is a privilege and carries a significant social responsibility. It is not just about turning a profit.”

If you are involved in the cosmetics and personal care ingredients supply chain and you have any similar experiences, either relating to tea tree oil or other ingredients, then please do not hesitate to get in touch with us using the 'Contact The Editor' tab at the foot of this page.

Related topics: Regulation & Safety, Hair Care, Skin Care

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