Essential oils like rosewood oil and thyme oil could be a cheap and effective alternative to antibiotics to fight drug-resistant superbugs, a new study has claimed.

Researchers at Technological Educational Institute of Ionian Islands in Greece reached the conclusion after testing the antimicrobial activity of eight plant essential oils.

“Not only are essential oils a cheap and effective treatment option for antibiotic-resistant strains, but decreased use of antibiotics will help minimise the risk of new strains of antibiotic resistant micro-organisms emerging,” said lead author Professor Yiannis Samaras.

The essential oils of thyme and cinnamon were found to be particularly efficient antibacterial agents against a range of Staphylococcus species of bacteria, with the thyme oil being the most effective.

The oil was able to almost completely eliminate the bacteria within 60 minutes, according to the research presented at the Society for General Microbiology's spring meeting in Edinburgh.

Strains of these bacteria are common inhabitants of the skin and some may cause infection in immuno compromised individuals.

Drug-resistant strains, such as meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are extremely difficult to treat.

The team believes essential oils could have diverse medical and industrial applications.

“The oils – or their active ingredients – could be easily incorporated into antimicrobial creams or gels for external application. In the food industry the impregnation of food packaging with essential oils has already been successfully trialled. They could also be included in food stuffs to replace synthetic chemicals that act as preservatives,” the researchers said.

Essential oils have for long been recognised for their therapeutic properties, although very little is still known about how they exert their antimicrobial effects in humans.

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