Cajeput (Melaleuca leucadendra and Melaleuca minor) is a tree that belongs to the Myrtaceae family. Like other myrtles, this tree sports alternating evergreen leaves. In keeping with family tradition, cajeput and its 200-plus cousins are commonly referred to as paperbarks or punk trees. While many people are not familiar with cajeput specifically, they may have heard of another close relative: Melaleuca alternifolia, more commonly known as tea tree.
While this particular species is native to Australia and Malaysia, it is cultivated elsewhere for the medicinal value of the volatile oil in the leaves and twigs. In fact, some of the largest producers of cajeput essential oil are Vietnam and the islands of Indonesia, particularly Sulawesi. Since this tree is found abundantly throughout the Malay Archipelago and Peninsula of Southeast Asia, the cajeput tree received its name from the Malay word kayu putih, which translates to mean “white wood.”
Cajeput oil is characterized by a camphor-like odor, similar to eucalyptus. To produce the oil, the leaves are harvested when the weather is dry and hot to ensure maximum concentration. The leaves are then crushed, mixed with water, and permitted to ferment overnight. Next, the oil is extracted by steam distillation. As a medicinal, the oil may be used topically or taken internally.
The primary active constituents of cajeput are sesquiterpenes, specifically alpha-terpineol, terpinen-4-ol, farnesol, linalool, and 1,8 cineole. Farnesol is a natural pesticide and pheromone that deters replication of many viruses, including Candida albicans. Cineole, also referred to as eucalyptol or cajeputol, has been the subject of many studies in which the substance demonstrated an ability to reduce inflammation. For example, it relieves headaches, nasal secretions associated with rhinosinusitis and sinusitis, and chest congestion stemming from bronchitis. It is also used as a flavoring agent for mouthwash, throat lozenges, and many other products.
Whether used internally or externally, cajeput should always be diluted. When mixed with a carrier oil as a topical remedy, it is effective at treating minor skin irritations, insect stings or bites, acne, herpes, hemorrhoids, and muscle or joint pain associated with rheumatism and arthritis. Taken internally, the oil is anthelmintic and used to expel intestinal parasites. It is also carminative, which improves digestion and prevents flatulence. However, cajeput also yields diaphoretic properties and may produce profuse sweating and a rapid pulse if taken in copious amounts.
Generally, cajeput is considered safe and has no known side effects or drug interactions. It may even assist the therapeutic activity of certain medications. In fact, studies have shown that when combined with conventional antibiotics, the rate of recovery from infection is substantially faster. However, due to its diaphoretic action, care should be taken to avoid excessive use. In addition, it is advisable to avoid using cajeput oil in any form during pregnancy and while nursing.