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The Girlfriend's Guide To Antibacterial Essential Oils

They do a lot more than smell good.

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A bottle of oregano essential oil with blooming oregano twigs on a wooden background
Getty Images
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Don’t let the soothing scent fool you: Essential oils have bacteria-bashing properties that can wipe out germs in hospitals and homes.

Here’s a creepy origin story: One of the first essential oil blends to kill bacteria was used in France by grave robbers in the late Middle Ages — they would rub it on their hands to protect themselves from bubonic plague while they did their dirty work. It worked, as witnessed by the plague-free crooks who lived to share their “thieves oil” with future generations (it’s still widely available today).

We’ve since learned that plant-based essential oils contain secondary metabolites (molecules not used for a plant’s growth, but beneficial in other ways) that kill airborne, food-borne and surface bacteria.

Here are a few of the strongest essential oils (steam-distilled from plants and very different from scented oils) that are effective when inhaled, used topically or diluted for household cleaning.

Cinnamon oil: Studies have shown that even low concentrations of cinnamon oil kill bacteria that even oral antibiotics can’t. In fact, it’s been proven to be just as effective as cleaning solutions used in hospitals against streptococcus, E.coli and more.

Thyme oil: In a study of 120 strains of bacteria (oral, respiratory and urinary tract), thyme oil “exhibited extremely strong activity against all of the clinical strains.”

Tea tree oil: This jack of all trades is used for its anti-fungal, lice-repelling and anti-inflammatory properties (among others). When released into the air, tea tree oil can kill airborne bacteria and viruses.

Clove oil: Studies show that when mixed with water, this powerful antimicrobial and antifungal agent is capable of wiping out all food-borne pathogens, plus E.coli and Staphylococcus aureus.

Oregano oil: With a high level of phenols (one of the properties that make essential oil such a great antimicrobial), oregano oil is effective against urinary tract, respiratory and yeast infections and may help kill MRSA (a deadly superbug).

*As with anything, essential oils can cause an allergic reaction, so test on a small patch if you're using them for medicinal purposes or ask your doctor.