Thyme oil vs. alcohol hand sanitizer: which is better?

Like most preemie parents, I am germ obsessed. In addition, working in a hospital is like living in a microbe spa, so I use alcohol based sanitizer liberally and I feel like I am always nagging the kids to use it as well.

But I am hearing more about “natural” sanitizers. Especially made with thyme oil. The makers of one “thyme based technology” brand, CleanWell, claim it kills 99.9% of germs.

I did a little research and checked with a friend, Jason Tetro, a crack microbiologist who blogs under the name Germ Guy. He is a hand hygiene guru (and born in Manitoba, which only adds another layer of awesome).

He says thyme oil extracts work pretty well against many bacteria and some viruses in the lab setting. With a virus, thyme oil damages the envelope, which is a protective coat around the membrane (the membrane is like the skin of a microorganism). The envelope is crucial to the ability of the virus to do its’ dirty work. So, if the envelope is damaged, the virus is basically inactivated. This is a really important point, because not all viruses have an envelope. Thyme oil is inactive against the actual membrane of a virus, so no envelope, no ability of thyme oil to work. That means thyme oil sanitizer will have no effect against the cold virus or the polio virus, as these viruses do not have envelopes.

Even though thyme oil has been tested against bacteria in a lab, it has never been tested on human skin (or if it has been tested, the results are not published anywhere that I could find). Another important point, because products interact with our skin (the oils etc.) and this could potentially alter how well they work.

Alcohol sanitizers kill all bugs by damaging proteins, the building blocks of the actual cell (remember, bacteria and viruses are a single cell). The concentration of alcohol must be at least 62% to have this instant kill effect. Alcohol hand sanitizers are even effective against the non-enveloped viruses, so unlike thyme oil, alcohol will kill the virus that causes the common cold. In addition, alcohol sanitizers have been tested on human skin, so we know they work in real life, not just the lab.

Alcohol is also natural; after all, the 2 main ingredients are sugar and yeast and in Canada, alcohol-based sanitizers are regulated as natural antiseptic products.

So we thought we would study a thyme oil sanitizer, CleanWell, head to head against an alcohol sanitizer, Purell. A nice little project for the elementary school science fair. We built an incubator box (meaning I built it), and each boy pressed their hand against some LB agar (a petri dish with nutrition to help the bacteria grow). One kid cleaned with Purell and the other with CleanWell (I supervised and timed for accuracy), and then we put the clean hands on a new set of petri dishes. Two days later we had our results (and by the way, like good scientists, we repeated the experiment to make sure we were right).

The alcohol was better.


The big blotches are bacilli (contaminants that probably come from the air and grew as expected on both plates). The alcohol plate has 3 distinct colonies of bacteria (large dots, and what we are most interested in looking for) that all looked the same (so probably same kind).

Thyme oil

The thyme oil plate grew a lot more bacteria (many more dots) and at least 3 different kinds (you can tell by the sizes of the colonies and the color, note two are a yellow).

To recap:

  • Alcohol (ethyl alcohol) and thyme oil sanitizers are both made with natural products.
  • Alcohol 65% tested under optimal conditions for a 7-year old, killed more bacteria overall and more types of bacteria than a thyme oil product.
  • Because of how thyme oil works, it is not possible for it to kill the cold virus.

The alcohol sanitizer wins hands down! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). And if you want to see a photo that shows the full awesomeness of alcohol sanitizers, check out this photo from the New England Journal of Medicine.

You want clean hands? You want an alcohol based sanitizer.

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11 Responses to Thyme oil vs. alcohol hand sanitizer: which is better?

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  3. Heather says:

    My son is a thumb sucker though & I am not eager for him to put alcohol-sanitized hands in his mouth so for children I still prefer products like Cleanwell.

  4. Sarah says:

    Could you clarify for momma-brained-me? Does/doesn’t thyme oil break that membeane of the enveloped virus? It seems to say it works by breaking membrane for enveloped viruses but doesnt work for viruses w protective coat. What is the difference. Is protective coat in addition to the already enceloped virus? “They damage the membranes (basically the skin) of microorganisms, which either harms or kills the germs. Theoretically, thyme oil products would work against bacteria and what are called enveloped viruses. This is a really important point. Some viruses have a protective coat that envelops the membrane (hence, enveloped virus), so the thyme oil can’t damage the membrane. “.

  5. Jennifer Gunter says:

    Thanks for catching that! Post is corrected. Serves me right posting at 2 a.m. !

  6. Robert Main says:

    Heather, I totally understand your concern about your child ingesting alcohol. The Mayo Clinic and CDC, however, adamantly recommend parents use an alcohol based sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available, to help protect your child against the many nasty things he naturally touches. The alcohol in hand sanitizer evaporates in 15 seconds or so, so as long as you are administering the hand sanitizer and it dries, your son cannot ingest any alcohol. Using a herbal hand sanitizer which has never been tested cannot be as effective as alcohol which has been used safely and reliably for disinfection for a century. Studies have actually shown that alcohol is more effective at disinfecting hands that soap and water, and dries the skin less, too.

  7. JRook says:

    Two key points here. First, I believe you will find that Heather in the post above is associated with the CleanWell site entitled a Better Way to Clean, so here comments are biased at best. Second, the study correctly identifies the fact the utilization of safe levels of Thyme Oil, the active ingredient in CleanWell will not kill bacteria, viruses and fungi at levels or in a time frame to qualify as an FDA TFM compliant hand sanitizer. So the company’s claim that it meets FDA requirements for hand sanitizers is, at best, false. The only limitation I see in the study and the writeup is the failure to utilize a Benzalkonium Chloride (BZK) based sanitizer like 4HourProtection or MicroArmor, both of which are significantly safer than Alcohol gels like Purell and CleanWell. They are both also equally if not more effective than alcohol gels across a wider spectrum of bacteria and viruses, including with the new generation of plant derived BZK, gram negative bacteria. Both formulas actually condition and moisturize the skin and BZK has been used as the active ingredient in Bactine, on open cuts, for over 30 years. So certainly more child safe than any other products on the market.

  8. Joe Schmo says:

    Benzalkonium Chloride (BZK) should be banned as it’s effects on the environment and contamination o our water supplies is affecting humans hormones.

  9. Krissy says:

    Thank you for this information! I had my spleen removed when I had most of my pancreas removed due to cancer. (caught early by accident so no further treatment needed after surgery other than routine CT scans for 5 years) So I have to be extra careful about germs. I use a lot of the alcohol based hand sanitizers. I keep it attached to my purse, and I keep wipes in my purse to use on store carts when the stores are out of wipes or don’t offer them. It’s really helped keep me from getting sick I do think.

    I was considering some of the more natural ones just because we use so much of it. But after reading this and finding out how the thyme oil doesn’t do what the alcohol does and especially after reading it doesn’t take out the common cold virus I know I won’t be switching.

    I have a few friends who make their own natural alcohol free hand sanitizer and I will be informing them of this. For their own use but also because they are falsely giving their customers information in thinking it’s just as good as the ones that use alcohol.

    When buying the alcohol types it’s important to read labels. Some time ago I read an article put out by the CDC saying some alcohol hand sanitizers do not contain enough alcohol to be effective. So read labels and IMHO it’s best to stick with name brand products to ensure the quality.

  10. Crystal says:

    What about the added/addiional ingredients in most alcohol based hand sanitizers? That concerns me more than the alcohol? Does anyone have any “hard” facts/data on this? OR does anyone know a good alcohol based sanitizer that doesn’t have additional added ingredients and if so, where to get it?

    Thank you!

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