Within the Asian Beauty community, you’ve probably heard a couple of horror stories of how people mistreated their skin as misguided teens. Getting a chemical burn from lemons, using a kitty liter face mask, etc.
I did them all.
This one time I made a DIY toner from brewed green tea and apple cider vinegar. I brewed a whole two cups and kept it for months, never thinking that the toner might go rancid.
Another time, I made a mixture of toothpaste and straight rubbing alcohol to use as a spot treatment. The spots I chose were my nose, left cheek, right cheek, chin, and forehead.
Needless to say I kicked these habits to the curb as soon as I started taking skincare more seriously and found more reliable sources to take advice for treating my acne, but the one thing that’s stayed consistent from my routine from then until now, over a decade, is tea tree oil. Thank god for small victories.
My skin really likes tea tree oil. I have acne-prone skin, but it’s dry leaning rather than oily so I can’t just rely on acids. Therefore things like tea tree oil and clay masks, that help clear my pores without photo sensitising or drying my skin to the extent of an acid, are a godsend. Tea tree oil specifically helps prevent breakouts on my skin, and when I don’t use it I notice more breakouts on my nose, cheeks near my nose, and temples. Pimples are also longer-lived when I don’t use tea tree oil. Why would I look for alternatives, you may ask, if I’ve already found something that works so well?
I hate the oily texture on my skin. Every time I apply tea tree oil, I feel like I just literally face-planted into the greasiest slice of pizza, like I ate chili noodles with the hand-mouth coordination of a two year old, like my face is a deep frying project gone wrong. Even though my skin likes oils, I don’t have any oils besides tea tree oil in my routine because I hate the texture so much. So if I can get the benefits of tea tree oil in a formulation that soaks in easier, like an essence or toner, then I am 100% on board. The two tea tree alternatives I thought to try were the LJH Tea Tree Essence, a cult classic, and Naruko’s Tea Tree Serum, because I had seen the brand grow in popularity and was curious about their products. I tested both of these products one after another, and excluded actual tea tree oil from my routine while I was testing them. Otherwise my routine was the same.
LJH Tea Tree Essence
A link to the CosDNA for the ingredients is here, but notable ones include 90% tea tree extract and centella asiatica extract–also high on the ingredients list, and known for its soothing properties that my skin loves. The rest of the ingredients list is mostly humectants and other plant extracts (sea buckthorn, grapefruit seed, mushroom, etc.). On the official website and English vendours like Glow Recipe and Memebox, the essence is advertised to moisturise with trehalose and soothe active breakouts with tea tree and centella asiatica.
That last point is where this essence falls short for me. Tea tree oil exhibits anti-inflammatory properties, but also anti-microbial activities and antioxidant activities that maybe transfer in the topical context. Because this essence uses the extracts and additional ingredients are moisturising and soothing, the opportunity cost of using this essence is the antimicrobial properties of tea tree oil that help prevent breakouts. In my personal experience, this essence isn’t very hydrating and definitely wouldn’t take the place of a more hydrating essence of hydrating toner. I also didn’t find it soothing or redness-reducing; it essentially sat like expensive water on my face despite the fact other tea tree extract and centella asiatica products have worked for me. As a consumer living in the USA, the 40USD price tag is hard to swallow for “maybe soothes a tiny bit” and “expensive water.”
Plenty of other reviews do find the essence to be soothing, so YMMV, as usual. If you have more oily-normal skin and your skin really likes tea tree extract, and can afford the essence, then maybe it’ll be worth the money. Generally, I wouldn’t recommend it.
I bought my bottle from HKCPlaza.
Naruko Tea Tree Serum
Naruko’s Tea Tree Serum opts for tea tree oil instead of tea tree extract so I was more hopeful about this one. The company has four pretty lofty claims regarding this serum
- Restrains oil and inhibits bacteria (saw palmetto extract, po factour, tea tree oil)
- Clears acne (salicylic acid and hyacinth bean seeds extract)
- Water retention (snow fungus extract, pentavitin, bisabolol, palmitoyl tripeptide)
- Dispel spots (alpha arbutin, tranexamic acid, vitamin b3)
(all of these were taken from the official website). The full ingredients list isn’t on the official website, which is inconvenient because I didn’t keep the cardboard box the serum came in, so I checked CosDNA for the ingredients, but neither user fill includes salicylic acid as an ingredient despite the official website including it. Moral of the story is don’t throw away your Naruko boxes, les that information be lost forever.
Honestly speaking I could email their customer service to ask, but in the context of what I’m about to say it doesn’t make a difference.
The serum has the texture of a stiff, but light, emulsion and smells extremely strongly of peppermint. That is honestly one of my biggest pet peeves with the serum–that the tea tree serum smells like peppermint–as I associate the smell of tea tree oil with clear skin and personally cannot stand the smell of peppermint.
At the end of the day though, the scent isn’t significant in the context that this serum really didn’t do anything for me. It wasn’t too drying despite the acids and high alcohol content, but including it in my routine felt like including a placebo in my routine. It wore fine during the day and was easy to force myself to use up, but I noticed pimples popping up on my nose, next to my nose, and on my temples. They lasted quite a while and after a couple months I gave up and just started using tea tree oil again.
I bought this bottle from Naruko’s official US website.
Overall, both of these products did nothing for me, especially in comparison to diluted pure tea tree oil. Others have had success with them, but for my fellow dry and acne prone folk I really can’t recommend them. I’ll be stuck with regular tea tree oil, though this was a fun experiment? I probably only feel this way because I got the LJH on offer for 14USD during a sale haha.