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Essential Oils: A Cleaning Essential?

Q: Are essential oils good for cleaning?
A: Many essential oils do have cleansing properties, and I think we will be seeing more of them in household cleaning products in the future. Citrus essential oils cut and absorb grease. Oils like tea tree, oregano, thyme and others can kill bacteria and other unwanted guests. However, most of the research on the disinfectant and antibacterial properties of essential oils has been done in a laboratory, rather than in typical homes. What works great in a lab dish does not always translate into practical, effective cleaning strategies at home.


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What Are Essential Oils?


Essential oils are delicate, fragrant oils found in small amounts in many plants. Some oils are found in petals of flowers like roses, some come from wood or the bark of plants such as pine or cinnamon, while others come from the outer peel of fruits like orange and lime. For centuries, these oils have been used for their beautiful fragrances and as part of natural healing practices. Today essential oils serve as flavoring agents in foods, toothpastes and mouthwashes, and as scents in a variety of cleaning products.

Research on Essential Oils

Exciting research is underway on the use of essential oils to eliminate certain bacteria, fungi and viruses on surfaces. Thyme, oregano, clove, tea tree and cinnamon oil can kill bacteria in a lab dish. These oils and others seem to have a way of disrupting the outer membrane of bacteria and killing them. One study (by Gaunt, L.F., Higgins, S.C. & Hughes, J.F., 2005) done in a large, closed chamber showed that a burning candle infused with essential oils was able to kill bacteria in a dish. This suggests that vapors carrying essential oils through the air might be able to disinfect a space. Even though essential oils may perform impressively in the lab, do not expect a few spritzes of thyme oil spray to eliminate a mold problem in the basement, or a swipe of oregano oil on the kitchen counter to protect your family from food poisoning. The amount of essential oil, how it is sprayed or applied and how long the effect lasts are all important, unanswered questions.


Safety Concerns

Before investing in essential oils for cleaning, consider safety first. The most common known health hazard from essential oils is skin sensitivity or allergy. Do a patch test by dabbing some diluted essential oil on your forearm. To dilute pure oil, thoroughly mix two to three drops in about a teaspoon of canola or vegetable oil and dab some on your forearm. Check back in 24 hours to see if redness or rash develops on that spot.


Allergies can also develop over time. Some essential oils can make the skin overly sensitive to the sun. If you spray yourself with essential oil from bergamot, for example, and then go out into the sun, a burn or brown splotches could develop. Some people are sensitive to inhaling certain oils or find them irritating to the eyes and nasal passages.

During pregnancy or breastfeeding, avoid contact with undiluted essential oils. Some might cause the uterus to contract or bleed, or cause negative effects to the baby. Certain plant oils might cause seizures if they are swallowed. Children may be more sensitive than adults to the effects of essential oils, so keep them well labeled and safely out of reach.

Emotional Effects

Essential oils can improve mental outlook and mood. Some people find citrus invigorating and stimulating; vanilla and nutmeg can be soothing. Oils like cedar, pine and sage are thought to be clarifying and uplifting. Scents are highly personal. People vary in their response to strong and unfamiliar smells. Scents can also provoke memories. When I was in medical school, oil of wintergreen was used to mask the smell of cadavers in the anatomy lab. So while some may find wintergreen freshly invigorating, I have a different reaction! When they are used safely, essential oils might add some additional benefit to household cleaning. With uplifting fragrances in the air, we just might enjoy the cleaning process a little bit more. At, you can find recipes for making your own household cleaning products with essential oils.

Best of health,
Dr. Anne


Essential Oils: A Cleaning Essential?:  Created on August 29th, 2006.  Last Modified on January 21st, 2014


About Anne Meneghetti, M.D.

Anne Meneghetti, M.D.Dr. Anne Meneghetti is a specialist in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine and critical care medicine. Her background includes formal training in medical research, medical technology assessment and multiple forms of natural healing. She has won many awards for health policy, promotion of nutritional approaches, and anti-smoking initiatives. Her worldwide travels included volunteering at an orphanage in Calcutta, India, as well as health promotion efforts in Asia. Dr. Meneghetti is a frequent speaker and educator on ways to integrate conventional medicine and natural approaches. Her multi-media experience spans Internet, radio, television and print.