The Secret of Thieves

The NY Times "Really?" column today profiles cinnamon oil as a natural antibacterial, part of my home-made essential oil hand sanitizer recipe modeled on the infamous "Thieves" blend.  What is this "Secret of Thieves"?

Props to Young Living Essential Oils (YLEO), the company that has popularized "Thieves" as a natural alternative to chemical alcohol-based sanitizers.  Their blend is a patented mixture of cinnamon bark, clove, lemon, rosemary and eucalyptus oils.  I have adapted this blend of oils for use as a DIY hand sanitizer, adding 1-2 drops of each oil (but 5 drops of the lemon oil – or grapefruit or orange, if you prefer) to a small dispenser bottle filled with filtered water and 1 tsp aloe vera gel.  We use it at the Whole Child Center and it's been the feature of my last 2 Earth Day presentations at my children's school.   We even made a cute how-to video.

The origin of this blend is rumored to date back to the Middle Ages. 

"As the bubonic plague decimated Europe in the year 1413, four thieves were
captured and charged with robbing the dead and dying victims. When the thieves
were tried, the magistrate offered leniency if they would reveal how they resisted
contracting the infection as they performed their gruesome acts. They explained
that they were perfumers and spice traders and told of a special concoction
of aromatic herbs, including cloves and rosemary, that they rubbed on their
hands, ears, and temples." 

Supposedly after confessing to King James of England, the thieves were summarily, um, silenced – but their secret lives on today.

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Research articles of note:

1. Lett Appl Microbiol. 2008 Sep;47(3):167-73.

Comparison
of bacteriostatic and bactericidal activity of 13 essential oils
against strains with varying sensitivity to antibiotics.

Antibiology Laboratory, CHU Hospital Nord, Saint-Etienne, France.

AIMS:
To compare the bacteriostatic and bactericidal activity of 13
chemotyped essential oils (EO) on 65 bacteria with varying sensitivity
to antibiotics. METHODS AND RESULTS: Fifty-five bacterial strains were
tested with two methods used for evaluation of antimicrobial activity
(CLSI recommendations): the agar dilution method and the time-killing
curve method. EO containing aldehydes (Cinnamomum verum bark and
Cymbopogon citratus), phenols (Origanum compactum, Trachyspermum ammi,
Thymus satureioides, Eugenia caryophyllus and Cinnamomum verum leaf)
showed the highest antimicrobial activity with minimum inhibitory
concentration (MIC) <2% (v/v) against all strains except Pseudomonas
aeruginosa. Alcohol-based EO (Melaleuca alternifolia, Cymbopogon
martinii and Lavandula angustifolia) exhibited varying degrees of
activity depending on Gram status. EO containing 1.8-cineole and
hydrocarbons (Eucalyptus globulus, Melaleuca cajeputii and Citrus
sinensis) had MIC(90%) > or = 10% (v/v). Against P. aeruginosa, only
C. verum bark and O. compactum presented MIC < or =2% (v/v).
Cinnamomum verum bark, O. compactum, T. satureioides, C. verum leaf and
M. alternifolia were bactericidal against Staphylococcus aureus and
Escherichia coli at concentrations ranging from to 0.31% to 10% (v/v)
after 1 h of contact. Cinnamomum verum bark and O. compactum were
bactericidal against P. aeruginosa within 5 min at concentrations
<2% (v/v). CONCLUSIONS: Cinnamomum verum bark had the highest
antimicrobial activity, particularly against resistant strains.
Significance AND IMPACT OF THE STUDY: Bacteriostatic and bactericidal
activity of EO on nosocomial antibiotic-resistant strains.

PMID: 19552780 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

2. J Craniomaxillofac Surg. 2009 May 25. [Epub ahead of print] 

The
battle against multi-resistant strains: Renaissance of antimicrobial
essential oils as a promising force to fight hospital-acquired
infections.

Department
of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, University of Kiel, Germany; Faculty
of Health Sciences and Medicine, Bond University, Gold Coast, QLD,
Australia.

Hospital-acquired infections and
antibiotic-resistant bacteria continue to be major health concerns
worldwide. Particularly problematic is methicillin-resistant
Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and its ability to cause severe soft
tissue, bone or implant infections. First used by the Australian
Aborigines, Tea tree oil and Eucalyptus oil (and several other
essential oils) have each demonstrated promising efficacy against
several bacteria and have been used clinically against multi-resistant
strains. Several common and hospital-acquired bacterial and yeast
isolates (6 Staphylococcus strains including MRSA, 4 Streptococcus
strains and 3 Candida strains including Candida krusei) were tested for
their susceptibility for Eucalyptus, Tea tree, Thyme white, Lavender,
Lemon, Lemongrass, Cinnamon, Grapefruit, Clove Bud, Sandalwood,
Peppermint, Kunzea and Sage oil with the agar diffusion test. Olive
oil, Paraffin oil, Ethanol (70%), Povidone iodine, Chlorhexidine and
hydrogen peroxide (H(2)O(2)) served as controls. Large prevailing
effective zones of inhibition were observed for Thyme white, Lemon,
Lemongrass and Cinnamon oil. The other oils also showed considerable
efficacy. Remarkably, almost all tested oils demonstrated efficacy
against hospital-acquired isolates and reference strains, whereas Olive
and Paraffin oil from the control group produced no inhibition. As
proven in vitro, essential oils represent a cheap and effective
antiseptic topical treatment option even for antibiotic-resistant
strains as MRSA and antimycotic-resistant Candida species.

PMID: 19473851 [PubMed – as supplied by publisher]

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