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Why Essential Oils are Better Than Penicillin

Could Essential Oils help in the fight against antibiotic resistance

I’ve been fascinated with bacteria and how our bodies interact with them ever since I did an experiment in college about hand-washing and learned how ineffective (and dangerous) antibacterial soaps are.

And today I’ve been wearing my science geek hat again and digging into the question of whether essential oils are a helpful tool in our fight against antibiotic resistance, and ultimately bad bacteria themselves because for me the potential side effects of essential oils are much less risk.

Note: Although I used a number of sources, listed at the end of the post, my main resource and inspiration came from Jessie Hawkins’ talk from the Essential Oils Revolution.

Let’s start with the basics:

What is Antibiotic Resistance?

  1. There are variations in bacteria, just like there are in people.
  2. Some bacteria are able to survive some antibiotics, whether it’s triclosan added to handsoap or penicillin taken by mouth.
  3. The bacteria that survive are the ones who proliferate.
  4. As we use antibiotics more, we kills the weaker bacteria, leaving the stronger, resistant bacteria to thrive.
  5. Eventually, the resistant bacteria outnumbers the rest and our chemicals don’t work anymore.
  6. Then scientists have to create new antibiotics if we want to continue winning against harmful bacterial infections.

It’s just as important to understand what antibiotic resistance is NOT, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there.

Antibiotic Resistance Myths

  1. The bacteria do NOT “learn” to defend themselves.
  2. The bacteria do not mutate (they don’t have to; some are already naturally resistant).
  3. A person cannot build their OWN antibiotic resistance. It’s not a person thing, it’s a bacteria thing.

That last one is really important. What it boils down to is that our actions affect everyone.

This is a global problem.

Unlike when I choose what to eat, the choices I make impact your ability to fight a deadly infection and vice versa.

And actually, sometimes what I choose to eat might actually have an effect on the global antibiotic resistance problem.

Why are we Seeing Antibiotic Resistance More?

In the US alone, we see about 23,000 deaths per year from antibiotic resistant bacteria – why?

First, use of antibiotics in general will have an impact. The process has been put into hyperdrive though because people are using antibiotics more often than needed, sometimes for things that aren’t even bacterial issues, like ear infections or pneumonia. (Read more: Home Treatment for Pneumonia.)

Second, and here’s where my food choices come into play, farmers use antibiotics in animals at fairly high rates (and used to even worse, although it’s been cut down a lot as we learn the deadly impact of that practice).

Now that we’ve laid the foundation, we can get into the real question.

Do essential oils provide hope in place of antibiotics (or on a team with them) because they WON’T encourage resistant bacteria?

Anatomy of an Antibiotic vs. an Essential Oil

Essential Oils

First, we’ll compare the players in the game:

An antibiotic is basically a single active compoundone specially constructed molecule – that happens to kill bacteria, or send messages that kill bacteria. (Scientists aren’t even 100% sure of the intricacies between an antibiotic and a bacteria!)

An essential oil, on the other hand, is an extraction of many (but not all) of the compounds in a plant. An essential oil usually has a few hundred different compounds in it, which plays to our advantage in the war on antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Because the oils are more complicated, the bacteria have to be adapted to resist many forms of attack at once for any single oil, and there are quite a few essential oils with antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, so it’s really a simple win of quantity. The oils have the numbers on their side, and the antibiotics are deadly and powerful, but don’t have the depth of variation.

Gut Health and Antibiotics

When taking antibiotics, beneficial gut bacteria are also casualties, and remediation with probiotics afterward is very important. Sometimes antibiotics can cause long-lasting gut effects, including obesity like these two women found, and may contribute to auto-immune diseases.

Some essential oils also harm gut bacteria, but not all of them. Lavender is a good example of an oil that does not impact gut bacteria yet is effective enough as an antibacterial agent to eliminate e. coli.

As far as I know, all antibiotics disrupt healthy gut flora, so essential oils (the right ones) would be by far the best choice when applicable.

Jessie Hawkins’ Top 5 Essential Oils with Antibacterial Properties

The talk by Jessie Hawkins is sooooo good, I wish you could just listen to the whole thing, but at least you get the gist of this super important info. I thought this list was very helpful:

  1. Lavender essential oil (quite safe for little ones and pets too!)
  2. Clove (potent, save for big infections or when really needed, great for sanitizing spray and food safety, caution with young children)
  3. Orange (also great for food safety, can even prolong the life of meat in the fridge, safe for little ones and also safe for gut health – watch next week for a chance to get some orange EO for free!)
  4. Peppermint (also promotes digestive health, not really kid-safe though)
  5. Eucalyptus (great for cleaning around the house, blend with lavender and orange, also not kid-safe though)

A lot of those are a huge surprise to me, because I knew that clove, oregano, tea tree, cinnamon, and some other “hot” oils had antibacterial properties, but these gentle ones are good to be aware of! Jessie said she chose these because she has pretty rigid standards and tries to balance safety, efficacy and precision. Awesome!

Read more on oils with antibacterial properties here

Do you know how to properly dilute essential oils?
essential oil dilution chart
Katie here, popping in to tell you how important it is to be sure you’re diluting those essential oils properly.Sure, you know not to use EOs straight (neat). But do you know the 1-2-3 math so it’s not too strong or weak? Print this chart to keep with your oils so you never have to do math in the middle of the night when your LO is congested:You can read more about why it’s so important to dilute essential oils here, and I know the little chart will be helpful!

Here’s the scoop on what oils are safe for kids and babies.

There are Risks even with Natural Remedies!

The risks of many pharmaceuticals is great, but I don’t want you to think that there is zero risk with essential oils and other natural remedies.

With EOs, there’s a risk of your own body building a resistance to the effects of oils if you use them too often, and there are immediate risks like allergic reactions, skin rashes, and harming your microbiome. Tea tree is one example of a broad spectrum oil that will kill beneficial bacteria too, which is why we might want to use that one less often than something like lavender or orange, even in cleaning.

Please consult a trained practitioner to determine how and when use the oils listed above (or any essential oil) to fight off illness or infection. Preventative use is not recommended.

The Future of Essential Oils as Antibiotic Substitutes

Could Essential Oils help in the fight against antibiotic resistance

It’s really encouraging to me that there’s honest-to-goodness medical research being done on the efficacy of EOs in the fight against unhealthy bacteria and the bigger fight against resistant bacteria.

  1. Some scientists are testing oils in petri dishes against bacteria.
  2. Others are working to isolate key compounds from essential oils to be made into medicines (although this may increase the risk of allowing resistant bacteria to form because it reduces the multi-pronged approach).
  3. The food industry is looking at antimicrobial oils to see what use they might have in food preservation.
  4. Researchers in Georgia have been working on using essential oil extracts on chicken feet to try to eliminate the need for agricultural antibiotics.
  5. A British researcher is working to find a cure for MRSA using oregano oil.

The most important key to remember, in my opinion, is that there IS still a risk of resistant bacteria arising with essential oils. The risk seems lower than with antibiotics, but if we overuse EOs, it will happen faster! And it’s the same global issue – what I do affects everyone.

3 final tips:

  1. DO keep using oils, because they work. Sanitize kitchens and bathrooms with them, especially in times of illness.
  2. Learn about the distinct uses for essential oils. If you’re a rookie, start with cleaning because there’s less risk of adverse reaction. Do some learning, and then move onto aromatherapy and applying properly diluted essential oils to the skin.
  3. Always keep learning.

PS – What About Hand Sanitizer?

I added this after publishing because a wise reader asked – are there safe ways to sanitize hands when you can’t wash without contributing to this problem?

I’ve written about hand sanitizers before, and I was pretty sure I knew the answer, but I had to do a little bit more research just to make sure.

This study admits that we don’t completely understand everything about how the active agents in disinfectants work – less than we do about antibiotics! Beyond that, the author doesn’t seem to come to any hard and fast conclusions about alcohol, the most common ingredient in hand sanitizer.

In contrast, Livestrong firmly states, “Controlled studies concluded hand sanitizers do not contribute to antibacterial resistance,” and cites two researchers, Kampf and E.C. Cole. Some reasons:

  • bacteria are “deactivated” without using antibiotics (not sure if the logic is sound there)
  • the alcohol quickly evaporate, limiting the time bacteria are exposed (again, this sounds like the bacteria are expected to “learn” how to be resistant. The “prolonged period of time” apparently required to develop resistance could be repeated, oft-daily use, just my hunch)
  • and a good one: “Even if the microbes develop resistance to the alcohols in hand sanitizers, they will remain susceptible to antibiotics.” Very true. So no “antibiotic resistance,” but perhaps still resistant bacteria?

Mother Jones quotes a Vanderbilt professor in affirming the last point, but with no further info about resistant bacteria in general.

As for effectiveness, if anyone is questioning, alcohol santizers are actually very effective, although they do NOT kill spores, so some diseases would be missed. They also don’t get dirt, grease, or potentially harmful heavy metals off your hands, so if running water or wipe is available, that’s always the best option, with regular old soap.

I really like the research I did about Thymol and how effective it is. It’s in the sanitizers we typically use for “those times” when we either have no water or just can’t bear to get our hands wet one more time in the winter (am I right?!?). Check out this post for more on disinfectants that really work (and how they’re all classified).

So…we don’t have to worry about contributing to antibiotic resistance when using hand sanitizers. I think the risk is probably minimal that we’ll create resistant bacteria that is unresponsive to alcohol-based sanitizers…but I’m just shooting from the hip and being an optimist here. Moderation in all things, I say – hopefully the doctors and dentists who use sanitizer 100x/day won’t end up regretting it. :/

Are you ready to help the global population by responsibly using (or avoiding) antibiotics?

Essential Oils and the Brain

Watch this quick video for info on the vagus nerve, how essential oils can be a “backdoor” entry to health, and the importance to your whole family of getting into a parasympathetic state more often:

Can’t see the video? Watch Essential Oils and the Brain here on YouTube.

Grab Jodi’s bonus chapter here.

And the oil she held up in the video is one of her own special blends, appropriately called Parasympathetic. You can get your own hands on some here.



Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links from which I will earn a commission. See my full disclosure statement here.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

6 thoughts on “Why Essential Oils are Better Than Penicillin”

  1. Do you have a great source for the pros/cons of using essential oils topically on a daily basis? Long story short, I have asthma that was very well controlled with diet, weekly allergy shots, & daily meds. I had even begun to wean myself off of my meds to every other day or every two days, and then we moved overseas for 2.5 years to a large city with lots of smog. My asthma got dramatically worse. I cut out grains completely with good success for my asthma, and just a few months ago we moved to the wide open spaces of Arizona. I was assured by many that my asthma would clear up in the “fresh, clean” air out west. Sadly, it has gotten worse, and I find myself using my rescue inhaler 2-3 times a week during flare-ups. I’ve been using an asthma blend in a roller nightly for over a year (more often during flare-ups), and periodically in the diffuse (when I have a flare up). My question is, how do I know if I’ve built up a resistance to the asthma blend? Could that be part of the problem with my asthma flare-ups out here in the “clean” air? Any thoughts or suggestions on where I can get more information about this would be greatly appreciated!! 😀

    1. Hi Susan – oh, so tricky!! 🙁 My first source for any questions about EOs is and the accompanying Facebook group I am guessing someone there will have an idea for you!!

  2. Thanks for this helpful article! I have a quick question. I know you aren’t a doctor, but is there an essential oil you would recomend applying topically to a rash?

    1. Hi Katie – I would Google this for sure and Plant Therapy has some helpful ideas even just in their product descriptions on a given oil. For example, one of the 2 Frankincense varieties is knows for being very helpful for skin. Lavender is also known for helping soothe skin issues. Always dilute for topical use! 🙂 Katie

  3. Just want to say thank you for showing Plant Therpay EO’s. I was once with one of the MLM companies until a friend told me about PT and am SO glad they did. Great oils, money saving and Kid Safe line! Antibiotic resistance is a frightening thing, thanks for educating your followers on it’s importance and how to help avoid/stop it!

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