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The Truth about Thyme: Disinfecting Naturally…or Not

August 15, 2011

With so much emphasis on green, natural, and organic turns in the fight against dirt and bacteria in your home, we’ve spent considerable time researching the alternatives that have made the rounds of internet blogs. We’ve become accustomed to seeing claims that

  • “for centuries”
  • “ancient man knew”
  • and our favorite “everyone knows”

that a host of plants and food-grade pantry items clean and disinfect as well if not better than the toxic chemical products available from the store. Some of the most common of these include

  • lemon, lime, or orange juice
  • vinegar
  • baking soda
  • borax
  • clove
  • thyme oil
  • and a few others.

But what we have to wonder about all of these is WHERE IS THE PROOF?

What we know about traditional lab-created chemical cleaners is based on science. Just because science tells us they are bad for our health doesn’t mean that science doesn’t also tell us that they are effective at achieving our cleaning and sanitizing goals.

Science is also the basis for the new movement in chemical-free cleaning, which is being offered by select cleaning companies in the US; to our knowledge, Castle Keepers of Charleston was the first to offer a 100% chemical free cleaning option, using technology and tap water: PerfectCLEAN cloths, Activeion Ionator, Ladybug Vapor Steam System, and ProTeam vacuums.

So we went searching for some science, and we hope you’ll help us along the way. We started with thyme oil, mainly because thyme is my favorite herb, and I can honestly say I wouldn’t mind that my whole house smells like it.

The scientific research we found tells us that thyme oil displayed the best disinfecting activity (compared to clove oil and lemongrass) against the following nasties in your home:

  • clostridium botulinum, commonly known at botulism: causes weakness, blurred vision, paralysis, respiratory failure and death; transferred by spores that lie on surfaces until conditions are right for activity.
  • escherichia coli, commonly known as e. coli: causes bleeding intestines and colon, kidney failure, and death; caught from raw meat, unwashed hands, and pet secretions, which can be transferred by hands to anywhere in the home.
  • listeria: causes fever, flu-like symptoms, miscarriage, and convulsions; caught from infected and uncooked food, soil, pet secretions.
  • salmonella spp: causes diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps and can be fatal; contracted through fecal matter of humans and animals, unwashed hands, pets, and unwashed vegetables
  • pseudomonas aeruginosa: causes rash, ear and eye infections; caught from unclean baths, sinks and hot tubs

It is critical that you understand that the studies show that thyme oil had the “best activity” against these nasties, NOT that it killed them or disinfected the area tested.

So far, we have not found any scientific studies that

  1. confirm lemon juice (or citric acid) or vinegar as disinfectants or
  2. compare lemon juice (or citric acid), vinegar, and thyme oil for their disinfecting properties.

Remember, a disinfectant has to not just kill 99.99% of the microbial contaminants but it must also prevent the re-growth of those microbial contaminants (recontamination notwithstanding).

Regardless, here are some VERY important things to remember about cleaning and disinfecting:

    • To date, there are NO scientifically proven solutions (lab-created or naturally-occurring) that BOTH clean AND disinfect.
    • If a surface isn’t cleaned first, then no amount of disinfectant will achieve your disinfecting goals.
    • None of the “natural” or “organic” solutions have been tested for dwelling time needs and solution strength. You can find homemade recipes all over the place, but when you use them, you are trusting some person you don’t know, who’s chemistry and biology credentials you don’t know…and you are trusting your children’s and your pets’ lives to this stranger.

Believe all of your mom-friends and their mom-friends and all of the mom-bloggers and naturalists you want, but unless you can confirm the results with science…how do you really know that homemade solution is really killing off the nasties you can’t see?

We encourage you to adopt a critical piece of our cleaning philosophy: trust, but verify!


Household Toxics

National Pesticide Information Center: Disinfectants

Disinfectants May be Poisoning Your Pet

Exposure to Disinfectants in the Workplace

Thyme Oil Activity Against E. coli and Salmonella

Antimicrobial Activity of Thyme Oil


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