Ever wondered what antimicrobial, antiviral, antiseptic, antibacterial and antifungal actually mean? Are they all the same thing? Can they be used interchangeably? Fun fact- no they cannot. They are all actions which fall under the term antimicrobial, but each do different things. They all treat pathogens (aka. microbes that can cause disease) differently because of the structure of their compounds.
So where does that leave the properties of essential oils? Well, for starters all essential oils are antimicrobial to a greater or lesser extent. However, the antimicrobial effectiveness of an essential oil will vary depending on the kind of microbe it is working to treat. This means one specific oil might be more effective at treating one pathogen compared to another oil. There are also a number of oils that have multiple actions. For example, clove essential oil has both antibiotic and antiviral properties.
As you can see, it’s super important to actually get to know the properties of the essential oils you’re using. Let’s have a further look at the antiviral and antibacterial actions of some essential oils to help you choose which ones will be the most beneficial for your specific needs.
Antiviral Essential Oils
An antiviral is defined as ‘a substance which inhibits the growth of a virus’. Viruses are teeny-tiny (even smaller than bacteria!) parasites which require access to a host in order to survive, reproduce and thrive because they can only live for a short period of time outside of the host. For example, a virus could live for a few hours on a surface which had been contaminated. They are most commonly spread through physical contact which highlights the importance of hygiene – things like washing your hands with soap and using hand sanitizer.
The use of essential oils with antibacterial properties will not be successful in treating viral infections as they simply cannot remove viruses. However, essential oils with antiviral actions will work to varying degrees of effectiveness to kill viruses and can be used to prevent the growth of viruses. Essential oils can be used in addition with other methods such as sanitisation with alcohol to inhibit the growth of viruses more effectively.
Here are our top picks for essential oils with antiviral actions to help overcome certain viral infections:
- Clary Sage (not to be used during pregnancy)
- Marjoram (not to be used during pregnancy)
- Australian Sandalwood
Antibacterial Essential Oils
The world is covered in unseen bacteria. It can be found everywhere- all over and inside our bodies, animals, plants, foods, water, snow, dirt, the earth’s crust and even the air. Bacteria can reproduce quite quickly under the right conditions with many types preferring warm, moist environments which is why food safety is so important.
As we know, there are good and bad bacteria. A balance of both are absolutely essential, whilst a disbalance of bad bacteria can cause disease and infection. So how can essential oils help? The overgrowth of bad bacteria can sometimes be eliminated, and in some cases be prevented by using certain essential oils. For example, some essential oils can be used to kill airborne bacteria and help improve air quality.
Our favourite bacteria fighting essential oils are below- just remember they don’t discriminate against good or bad bacteria and will eliminate both, so don’t overdo it.
- German Chamomile
- Roman Chamomile
- Australian Sandalwood
Before you get started…
Remember that it is vital that you match the oil you’re using with the problem you want to address. Make sure you’re picking oils that will actually work for your specific needs by having a quick look at its key properties to determine its best uses. Don’t forget to become familiar with the safety data of that oil as well as not all are created equal and can be used safely in all applications (pregnancy, pets, phototoxicity).
It’s great to use your essential oils in conjunction with other methods of antiviral and antibacterial protection to help prevent the spread and growth of unwanted microorganisms. And remember, always follow the recommended applications of essential oils, personally, diffusing is our favourite for antibacterial and antiviral uses!
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Lawless, J 2013, The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, Conari Press, San Francisco.
Swamy, M. K., Akhtar, M. S., & Sinniah, U. R. 2016, ‘Antimicrobial Properties of Plant Essential Oils against Human Pathogens and Their Mode of Action: An Updated Review’, Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine, https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/3012462
Wińska, K, Mączka, W, Łyczko, J, Grabarczyk, M, Czubaszek, A, & Szumny, A 2019, ‘Essential Oils as Antimicrobial Agents-Myth or Real Alternative?’, Molecules, vol. 24, no. 11, https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules24112130