A new microdilution method has been developed for determining the minimum inhibitory concentration (MIC) of oil-based compounds. The redox dye resazurin was used to determine the MIC of a sample of the essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) for a range of Gram-positive and -negative bacteria. Use of 0·15% (w/v) agar as a stabilizer overcame the problem of adequate contact between the oil and the test bacteria and obviated the need to employ a chemical emulsifier. A rapid version of the assay was also developed for use as a screening method. A comparison of visual and photometric reading of the microtitre plates showed that results could be assessed without instrumentation; moreover, if the rapid assay format was used, rigorous asepsis was not necessary. Accuracy of the resazurin method was confirmed by plate counting from microwells and MIC values were compared with results obtained using an agar dilution assay. The MIC results obtained by the resazurin method were slightly lower than those obtained by agar dilution.