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EARTHWATCH : Tea Tree Oil : A little dab of this natural unguent will cleanse, soothe and medicate insect stings, minor scrapes, pimples and sunburns.

November 22, 1990|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Richard Kahlenberg has worked on behalf of Greenpeace and has been active in The Urban Resource Network and The Environmental Coalition.

Thanksgiving. A time for family matters. I had in mind sharing a family secret. Not about dinners, though--my penchant for "less is more" would be out of place on this day.

My secret is a first-aid item used by everyone in our family. It's something with a lot of medicinal uses that is made from a natural material and doesn't sting, stink or stain.

I'm talking about tea tree oil. But it's evidently not much of a secret lately because in researching the background of this natural antiseptic I found that Thrifty, Sav-On, Longs, etc. now sell an array of products that contain it. And the health food stores where my wife's been buying 100% pure tea tree oil for years have experienced a surge in sales lately.

Tea tree oil. What an odd name. A botanist, Joseph Banks, named it when he reported on Pacific Coast health matters during the famous voyages of Capt. Cook. The coast in question was on the other side of the Pacific basin, Australia. The original inhabitants, he noted, brewed medicinal teas and steamed out medicinal oils from the leaves of certain tea trees.

And they still do. The European settlers picked up on practices down under as we took up certain Indian herbalists' practices hereabouts. In Australia, eucalyptus leaves became the most popular source of medicinal oil.

"Everybody there has used them for 150 years," Brenda Bonner, a Pacoima natural oils broker, said. "But Americans don't like the smell. We've taken a fancy to one particular 'tea tree,"' Melaleuca, Bonner said. "And a two-ounce bottle lasts two years."

Indeed it does. Purchased in generic form, 100% pure (Aussie) government inspected, it's something our family uses instead of everything--instead of iodine, isopropyl alcohol, sunburn oil or commercial zit fighters. Tea tree oil has also become an important ingredient in a wide range of American-made health care products as manufacturers, especially in California, move away from petroleum-based (and sometimes irritating) chemicals.

Because it's a natural germicide, fungicide and mild analgesic, tea tree oil is useful in lip balm, mouthwash, toothpaste, soap and deodorants. It's also widely available in a medicinal (anti-dandruff) shampoo made by Freeman Cosmetics here in Southern California.

But call around to find a store that carries it in its 100% pure generic form. Buy one for the medicine cabinet and one for mommy's purse. The quaint directions on one of our bottles read: "Dab on to cuts, insect bites, minor burns, pimples. Sprinkle on handkerchief or add drops to hot water and inhale for nasal congestion. Use sparingly." This time of year, with the cold season upon us, we also use it for chapped noses and lips.

This might sound like some New England auntie lecturing the young during a lull in the dinner table conversation. Well, I'll accept the role for now. From an environmental standpoint I'm also comfortable because the manufacturing process involved is nature friendly. The tea tree leaves are trimmed, not unlike what we do with rosebushes for their benefit. And, unlike petroleum, this is a renewable resource.

The leaves are steamed in a process rather like what we do with vegetables for dinner. Except it's the steam that's collected, in something like an old-fashioned bootlegger's still. When the water condenses, the oil is skimmed off the top.

The folks who bring tea leaf oil to America retest it for purity to see if the Australian government labeling is accurate. Desert Essence, a manufacturer in Topanga, has noted no discrepancies. Then, in determining various applications--for instance, for sunburn or pimples--they test it on themselves, not animals. (This takes cruelty-free manufacturing principles to the max.)

So now you know about our little family secret. Gatherings at Thanksgiving can produce the odd cut, scrape, sting or singe. Having a few ounces of tea tree oil on hand during this and other holidays should take care of things.

* WHAT AND WHERE

Generic tea tree oil can be found in health food stores, including the following in Ventura County:

* Kayser's Nutrition Centers, Buenaventura Plaza in Ventura, 642-2145, and La Cumbre Plaza in Santa Barbara, 682-3747.

* Lassen's Health Foods, 4013 E. Main St., Ventura, 644-6990, 3471 Saviers Road, Oxnard, 486-8266 and 2207 Pickwick Drive, Camarillo, 492-3287.

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