• Are ALL Essential Oils Antibacterial?

    essential oils

    I can’t tell you how many people have told me, or how many times I’ve read online, that all essential oils are antibacterial, but it’s a lot. A whole lot. Like a scary number of times, a lot.

    Why scary? Let me explain…

    A Word By Any Other Name

    Before I continue, there are several different terms that are used to describe the various types of organisms that cause disease and the different means of keeping those organisms from causing disease. You need to know the difference between them.

    • Antibiotic:
      ~A substance that can destroy or inhibit the growth/reproduction of microorganisms. It literally translates as “against life.” In the medical world, usually used when referring to oral usage; that distinction isn’t generally made in aromatherapy since ingestion of essential oils is not commonly advocated.
    • Microorganism:
      ~A microscopic organism, especially bacteria, virus, fungus, or protozoa
    • Anti-microbial:
      ~Tending to destroy microbes, prevent their development, or inhibit their pathogenic (disease causing) action
    • Microbe: (no longer in technical use in the medical community)
      ~ Any disease causing microorganism; a germ (bacteria, virus, fungus, protozoa, etc.)
    • Antiseptic:
      ~Capable of preventing infection by destroying or inhibiting growth/reproduction of infectious agents. Applied topically to living tissue.
    • Disinfectant:
      ~An agent that disinfects by destroying, neutralizing, or inhibiting the growth/reproduction of disease-carrying microorganisms. Applied topically to an inanimate object.
    • Antifungal:
      ~Destroying or inhibiting the growth/reproduction of fungi
    • Antiviral:
      ~Destroying or inhibiting the growth and reproduction of viruses
    • Antibacterial:
      ~Destroying or inhibiting the growth or reproduction of bacteria
    • Bactericide (bacteriocide):
      ~An agent that destroys bacteria
    • Bacteriostatic:
      ~Inhibiting or retarding the growth or reproduction of bacteria

    You may think that it’s just semantics, and you’re right… because the word semantics means, “the meaning of a word, phrase, sentence, or text.” (from the definition function of Google). In order to be fully understood, the correct words need to be used.

    If something is antibacterial it affects only bacteria. It won’t work against viruses, fungi, protozoa, or any other disease causing organism. If something is antiseptic it has a much broader action and may affect not only bacteria but also fungi, viruses, protozoa, and other microorganisms that cause disease.

    So, What About Those Antibacterial Essential Oils?

    As it turns out, most sources don’t even list antibacterial as a property for essential oils. Instead they use the term antibiotic, antimicrobial, antiseptic, bactericide, and disinfectant. Here is a synopsis of the oils in each category from the reference books* I used for this article:

    Antibiotic (28): Balsam de Peru, Bergamot, Cajeput, Chamomile (German and Roman), Cinnamon, Clove, Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus lemon, Eucalyptus radiata, Garlic, Hyssop, Lavender, Lemon, Lime, Manuka, Myrtle, Niaouli, Nutmeg, Onion, Oregano, Patchouli, Pine, Ravensara, Sarriette, Tea Tree, Terebinth, Thyme

    Antimicrobe (3): Myrrh, Tagetes, Thyme

    Antiseptic (72): Basil, Bay, Bergamot, Birch, Black pepper, Bois de Rose, Cajuput, Camphor, Cardamom, Cedarwood, Celery, Chamomile (German & Roman), Cinnamon, Citronella, Clary sage, Clove, Cumin, Cypress, Elemi, Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus lemon, Eucalyptus radiata, Fennel, Fir, Frankincense, Garlic, Geranium, Ginger, Hyssop, Jasmine, Juniper, Lavender, Lemon, Lemongrass, Lime, Mandarin, Manuka, Marjoram, Myrrh, Neroli, Niaouli, Nutmeg, Onion, Orange, Oregano, Origanum, Palmarosa, Parsley, Patchouli, Peppermint, Pettigraine (lemon & orange), Pimento, Pine, Ravensara, Rose, Rosemary, Rosewood, Sage, Sandalwood, Sarriette, Savory, Spearmint,Tagetes, Terebinth, Tea tree, Thyme, Verbena, Vetiver, Wintergreen, Yarrow, Ylang ylang

    Bactericide (23): Basil, Bergamot, Cajeput, Cumin, Elemi, Garlic, Eucalyptus, Immortelle (helichrysum), Juniper, Lavender, Lemon, Lemongrass, Lime, Manuka, Myrrh, Myrtle, Neroli, Niaouli, Palmarosa, Rose, Rosemary, Rosewood, Tea tree

    Disinfectant (8): Birch, Caraway, Clove, Dill, Juniper, Lime, Myrrh, Pine

    Please note that this is far from an exhaustive list. There are hundreds of essential oils out there and there’s limited room in any one book. Even combining entries from 4 books, some oils will not be covered in any of them.

    As you can see, there are far more essential oils that are listed as antiseptic by respected authors than are listed as antibacterial, antibiotic, or bactericidal. So clearly all essential oils are NOT antibacterial.

    You’d be more correct to say that most essential oils are antiseptic to one degree or another. Most. In the various appendices and charts, there are still some blanks in the antiseptic column. There is no one property that’s shared by every single essential oil out there. NONE.  As tempting as it may be to oversimplify things, it’s a dangerous thing to do.

    I even hesitate to say that most essential oils are antiseptic to some degree because they have varying degrees/modes of antiseptic ability. Remember, antiseptic has a very broad definition; it can destroy OR inhibit growth of disease causing organisms. A few are considered good general antiseptics. Some are most useful at preventing infection, i.e. they inhibit growth of microorganisms but will be ineffective if infection has already set in. Some will destroy microorganisms but not do nothing to hamper the growth of those that don’t die. Some are better at combatting viruses, some more adept at fending off fungi, and others are best at keeping bacteria at bay. If you don’t know the particulars about the way an oil works against microorganisms, you shouldn’t use it as an antiseptic or antibacterial. It’s that simple.

    If you think that’s harsh, I beg to differ. The 10 years I spent as a chemist and bacteriologist in environmental labs before becoming a massage therapist and aromatherapist, showed me just how persnickety each type of bacteria and mold we tested for was. We were only testing to see how many colonies would grow under optimal conditions, but one small change in any of the test conditions could give radically different results. Had we been trying to inhibit growth, we would have found that same persnicketiness.

    Please. I only ask 2 things of you; 1) To temper your awe of the power of essential oils with a healthy dose of respect, and 2) To fully educate yourself (i.e. learn from more than one source) about each and every essential oil you use, before you use it. That’s it.

    OK, I lied… I have one more request: 3) Promote the educated use of essential oils. How can you do that? You can start by sharing this post.

    Thanks.

    *Sources:
    Aromatherapy and A-Z by Patricia Davis
    Directory of Essential Oils by Wanda Sellar
    The Art of Aromatherapy by Robert Tisserand

    The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy by Valerie Ann Worwood

One Response so far.

  1. Thanks for this very clear and informative article. I am a great advocate of separeting Myth from Reality about essential oils and this article does it perfectly.