One of the great stories that changed my practice of
medicine took place 600 years ago.
Perhaps only a myth, “The Secret
of Thieves” speculates that the origin of a well-known anti-infective
essential oil blend dates back to the Middle Ages.
century, bubonic plague outbreaks decimated the population of Asia and Europe
for the better part of a thousand years. Out of this period emerged a legend of
four thieves who 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 told of a special concoction of aromatic herbs,
including garlic, cloves and rosemary, that they rubbed on themselves before
committing their crimes.”
Supposedly after confessing to King James of England, the
thieves were summarily silenced – but their secret lives on today.
Flash forward a few hundred years. Not exactly the Plague, but H1N1 (aka “Swine
’09”) was causing great anxiety.
Everyone was using conventional alcohol- and/or chemical-based hand
sanitizers like water. The alcohol was
causing skin irritation in many children, and there were reports (now on the increase) of
serious adverse effects from alcohol ingestion.
Triclosan, a toxicant found in chemical-based products, has been linked
to immune dysregulation
and endocrine disruption. I was interested in more natural options and
doing research on essential oils when a mom in my practice told me about Young
Living Essential Oils’ “Thieves” blend, a patented mixture of cinnamon,
clove, lemon, rosemary and eucalyptus oils, similar to the mythical oils used
in the Middle Ages. I wanted to make my
own blend, so I contacted my colleague Dr.
Kamyar Hedayat, one of the foremost pediatric aromatherapy experts in the
country and founder of AromaMD. In fact,
I included a Spotlight section in my new book, “Treatment
Alternatives for Children,” on essential oils and aromatherapy, and Dr.
Hedayat provided this statement:
“Essential oils are a
wonderful healing approach for children. Newborns recognize their mother by
scent, not sight. Children explore the world by smelling things. As we age, a
single scent can trigger a flood of memories. As you cuddle your child in your
arms when sick, allowing them to smell a few drops of lemon and eucalyptus can
ease their breathing and reduce their fever. As they fall asleep at night, a
gentle foot or hand rub with lavender and marjoram will send them off into the
sweet and gentle night with a sweet and soothing scent. Essential oils are more
than a sweet smell. They calm the nerves, aid the body, and soothe the soul.”
So Dr. Hedayat hooked me up with medical-grade oils, I added
aloe vera gel and water, and voila!
Instant DIY natural hand sanitizer.
We use it daily at the Whole
Child Center, and I’ve taught hundreds of kids and their families how to
make it. For an Earth Day demonstration
at my children’s elementary school, we even made a cute how-to video. Sometimes we substitute orange or grapefruit
oil for the lemon, just to vary the aroma.
It became so popular and families kept asking us to make them more that
we partnered with Kristina at Poofy
Organics, and now she makes and bottles the blend (“Clean Clappers”) for
I’ve been asked from time-to-time (including by the New York Times)
for data supporting the anti-microbial efficacy of these oils. Here is a selection of relevant scientific
Mechanisms of Action (from Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database)
The applicable parts of cassia cinnamon are the bark and
flower. Cinnamaldehyde is found in the volatile oil fraction of cassia
cinnamon. Cinnamaldehyde seems to have antibacterial activity.
The applicable parts of clove are the oils, flowers, leaves,
and stems. Clove oil contains up to 95% eugenol. Clove oil inhibits gram-positive and
gram-negative bacteria. It also has fungistatic action, and anthelmintic and
The applicable part of rosemary is the leaf. The active
constituent of rosemary leaves is the essential oil. The oil consists primarily
of cineole, borneol, camphor, and pinenes. Rosemary also seems to have
antibacterial, antifungal, and antioxidant properties.
The applicable parts of eucalyptus are the leaf and oil.
Eucalyptus oil, which is made from the leaves and branches of eucalyptus,
contains 60% to 90% eucalyptol (1,8-cineole). Eucalyptus leaf extracts seem to
have antimicrobial and antifungal activity.
Published Studies (from PubMed)
Comparison of bacteriostatic and bactericidal activity of 13
essential oils against strains with varying sensitivity to antibiotics. Mayaud
L, Carricajo A, Zhiri A, Aubert G. Lett Appl Microbiol. 2008 Sep;47(3):167-73.
The battle against multi-resistant strains: Renaissance of
antimicrobial essential oils as a promising force to fight hospital-acquired
infections. Warnke PH, Becker ST, Podschun R, Sivananthan S, Springer IN, Russo
PA, Wiltfang J, Fickenscher H, Sherry E. J Craniomaxillofac Surg. 2009 Oct;37(7):392-7.
Effect of plant oils on Candida albicans. Agarwal V, Lal P,
Pruthi V. J Microbiol Immunol Infect. 2010 Oct;43(5):447-51.
Evaluation of bacterial resistance to essential oils and
antibiotics after exposure to oregano and cinnamon essential oils. Becerril R,
Nerín C, Gómez-Lus R. Foodborne Pathog Dis. 2012 Aug;9(8):699-705.
Antimicrobial activity of commercially available essential
oils against Streptococcus mutans. Chaudhari LK, Jawale BA, Sharma S, Sharma H,
Kumar CD, Kulkarni PA. J Contemp Dent Pract. 2012 Jan 1;13(1):71-4.
Increasing antibiotic activity against a multidrug-resistant
Acinetobacter spp by essential oils of Citrus limon and Cinnamomum zeylanicum.
Guerra FQ, Mendes JM, Sousa JP, Morais-Braga MF, Santos BH, Melo Coutinho HD,
Lima ED. Nat Prod Res. 2011 Dec 23. [Epub ahead of print]
Antibacterial activity and anticancer activity of Rosmarinus
officinalis L. essential oil compared to that of its main components. Wang W,
Li N, Luo M, Zu Y, Efferth T. Molecules. 2012 Mar 5;17(3):2704-13.
Chemical composition and antimicrobial activity of
Rosmarinus officinalis L. essential oil obtained via supercritical fluid
extraction. Santoyo S, Cavero S, Jaime L, Ibañez E, Señoráns FJ, Reglero G. J
Food Prot. 2005 Apr;68(4):790-5.
Antimicrobial activities of eucalyptus leaf extracts and
flavonoids from Eucalyptus maculata. Takahashi T, Kokubo R, Sakaino M. Lett
Appl Microbiol. 2004;39(1):60-4.
Chemical Composition of 8 Eucalyptus species' Essential Oils
and the Evaluation of Their Antibacterial, Antifungal and Antiviral activities.
Elaissi A Ae, Rouis Z Zr, Abid NB Na, Mabrouk S Sm, Ben Salem Y Ybs, Bel Haj
Salah K Kb, Aouni M Ma, Farhat F Ff, Chemli R Rc, Harzallah-Skhiri F Fhs,
Khouja ML Mlk. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2012 Jun 28;12(1):81. [Epub ahead of