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.
Here at KS I hosted a biologist who explained to us how antibacterial resistance works.
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.
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?
- There are variations in bacteria, just like there are in people.
- Some bacteria are able to survive some antibiotics, whether it’s triclosan added to handsoap or penicillin taken by mouth.
- The bacteria that survive are the ones who proliferate.
- As we use antibiotics more, we kills the weaker bacteria, leaving the stronger, resistant bacteria to thrive.
- Eventually, the resistant bacteria outnumbers the rest and our chemicals don’t work anymore.
- 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
- The bacteria do NOT “learn” to defend themselves.
- The bacteria do not mutate (they don’t have to; some are already naturally resistant).
- 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.
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
First, we’ll compare the players in the game:
An antibiotic is basically a single active compound – one 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 (well, you could if you buy the summit), but at least you get the gist of this super important info. I thought this list was very helpful:
- Lavender essential oil (quite safe for little ones and pets too!)
- Clove (potent, save for big infections or when really needed, great for sanitizing spray and food safety, caution with young children)
- 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!)
- Peppermint (also promotes digestive health, not really kid-safe though)
- 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!
Did you know that essential oils have a shelf life?
Katie here, popping in to tell you that those essential oils that have been sitting in your cabinet for a couple years and are still half full may have expired. Read more about what I learned when researching this topic, and you can even have the handy printable I made to help me remember how long which oils last.
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
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.
- Some scientists are testing oils in petri dishes against bacteria.
- 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).
- The food industry is looking at antimicrobial oils to see what use they might have in food preservation.
- Researchers in Georgia have been working on using essential oil extracts on chicken feet to try to eliminate the need for agricultural antibiotics.
- 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:
- DO keep using oils, because they work. Sanitize kitchens and bathrooms with them, especially in times of illness.
- 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.
- Always keep learning.
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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. :/
- Essential Oils, Separating Truth from Myth by Kristen Smith, Master Herbalist
- Jessie Hawkins of Vintage Remedies, talk from the Essential Oils Revolution: Antibiotic Resistance: How Essential Oils can Help
- The Natural History of Antibiotics
- Science Clarified
- How Antibiotics are Made