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March 29, 2020

Do essential oils show anti-viral activity and can we trust them?

Kylie Myatt

There is a lot of anti viral talk at the moment but it’s the ones about Essential Oils that worry me the most.  So lets see what we know about Essential Oil Anti Viral activity so far.  

A lot of Essential Oils are bio active.  The plants that made them frequently design them or use them for bio active purposes.  Some are insect pheromones, some deterrrants, some signal other plants, some signal plant actions within itself and some even affect our internal biological activities.  They are certainly more than just aromas filling your room.  

Essential Oils are made up of many individual compounds.  These compounds have distinct similarities which puts them into their own unique group. These are the Terpenes and all essential oils are made up of different combinations and amounts of the same group of terpenes. It’s like a box full of LEGO. The pieces themselves don’t change but you can make many different things with the same pieces. 

When it comes to anti viral studies with essential oils a small recurring group of terepenes appears over and over again.  

Some of us are innocently familiar with them already.  They are the essential oils that can irritate your skin when applied pure and undiluted.  Those traditional oils grandmas and aunties said help with a cold and tooth aches, they smelt often strong and made your eyes water.  Or sometimes putting up with the symptoms was better than the treatment even if it was effective. 

The terpenes that have shown success instudies are eucalyptol, thymol, eugenol, pinene, 1-8-Cineole, limonene, terpineol, p-cymene, terpinene, citral and a longer list even.

Terpenes such as these act as lipid solvents. They are able to disrupt lipid membranes in biological systems.  You know this already because you use mineral turpentine to thin and dissolve oily sticky substances like paint and varnishes. It’s a similar action. 

Cell membranes are made from water repellent oil loving molecules that all stick together and make a moving, flexible but effective membrane around your cells.

Many viruses have a lipid envelope/membrane around them too (thankfully COVID-19 does too). This envelope encases the viruses genetic code and is crucial to its function. This lipid envelope it also has protein receptor sites on it and it is this envelope that recognises the right type of cell to stick to and insert its genetic material into. It is full of receptor sites and is responsible for the first action of a virus infecting a cell. Damage this lipid membrane and you have an inactive virus particle as it cannot enter a cell.

The above terpenes have shown success in breaking down this lipid envelope in different types of viruses such as influenza A, bird flu and different varieties of HSV.  I could not find testing publications for COVID virus  types.

These virus envelopes are also sensitive to UV light, heat and alcohol.  Hence the strong recommendations of alcohol hand sanitizers.

Your own cells have lipid membranes too and the action of these terpenes on them is the skin irritation you feel when too much has been applied.  It’s a big reason I DO NOT advocate eating essential oils.  

The terpenes disrupt this lipid membrane by breaking it apart and making holes in it. In your cells this leads to their contents leaking out and the cell dying.  In a virus it leads to the RNA or DNA genetic material inside being compromised or the virus is unable to enter and inhabit a cell therefore unable to reproduce. 

Because studies are occurring but not voraciously, they are showing strong evidence of terpene anti viral activity but we do not yet understand enough about its mechanisms and specifics of the chemical reactions involved.  This poses ambiguity on the accuracy of the important discoveries as we do t know the full picture or the parameters of when the terpenes work and when they don’t and why.

However to date, today, we know that anti viral properties are there and that certain components of essential oils seem to come up in these results again and again.

For this reason I do incorporate certain  essential oils that have these components in my hand sanitizer products as a secondary line of defence backing up the well researched and documented effectiveness of Alcohol on breaking down lipid membranes. 

Please remember that these actions often list relevant essential oils as skin irritants when in pure undiluted form. Essential Oils such as Clove, Thyme, Eucalyptus, Lemon Myrtle, Tea Tree, Oregano, Rosemary, Pine, Peppermint.

They are not to be applied directly to the skin in high concentrations and not to be taken by mouth.  They are to be used diluted and often not above concentrations of 2%.

There is also the factor of time. While alcohol breaks this lipid membrane quite instantly the terpenes in question take considerably longer (8-10mins) and sometimes required higher temperatures (body temp) to work effectively. For this reason Alcohol should always be the best consideration when choosing a Hand Sanitiser. I add essential oils containing  the relevant terpenes as an effective although weaker and slower acting back up for when all the alcohol has evaporated away.

Soap and hot water break down this lipid layer too.

Hopefully this will be helpful when faced with a rather over zealous seemingly knowledge laden essential oils representative.  We all know the ones.  🤦‍♀️


Meet Kylie Myatt 

I keep skincare simple and enjoyable for this stage. Not too many steps but each step is immersive with smells and textures you can’t wait to try again. It’s to bring your mind in, make it still and take a breath before you exit that bathroom.

This is the first part of my work as your skincare maker complete. But really my work is about what your skincare is doing on your skin for the rest of the day. Making it grow healthy, undamaged and unhindered by harsh chemicals.