Essential oil of thyme is one of the most versatile and widely used essential oils with many proven health benefits. Most importantly, it is a natural disinfectant because of its strong antibacterial, antifungal and pesticidal properties. It is renowned for its ability to provide relief in some respiratory tract infections. But it is less potent than eucalyptus essential oil. Essential oil of thyme contains a natural compound called as thymol, which most of us have seen on the labels of mouthwash products. Thymol is added not merely for its refreshing aroma but also for its antiseptic and cleansing properties.
These benefits that we know of are just barely scratching the surface. There are many more health benefits to thyme. This is because this herb has many chemical variants (termed as chemotypes) which other common plants and herbs can hardly match. Thymes of different chemotypes have varying chemical compositions. So, while red thyme (chemotype: thymol) is more effective in respiratory tract infections, linalool thymol (chemotype: linalool) is more applicable in insomnia because of the mild sedative effects of linalool.
Commonly grown thyme is the thymus vulgaris. This is what we see in gardens all over the world. Historically, thyme was used for medicinal, cleansing and ritual tasks in ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome and across Europe in the Middle Ages. Gradually, its ritual usage has declined and now its main use is culinary (as a condiment) and medicinal. Most commonly, people use thyme to prepare a delicious tea.
Essential oil of thyme is extracted either by using steam distillation or hydro-distillation. Steam distillation is preferred because of a lower risk of conversion of natural volatile compounds by hydrolysis reactions. Stem, leaves and flowers of thyme are used to extract oil. Sometimes, only the leaf or only the flower can be used.
Color and Aroma
Different varieties (chemotypes) of thyme yield essential oils of different color. It also varies with the level of distillation. Initial distillation of flowers of thyme lends a dull yellow color with shades of red, brown or orange. A second distillation of the extracted oil produces a whitish essential oil with a less spicy aroma.
Red thyme oil has a characteristic spicy aroma. This is interspersed with the dominant aroma of the chemotype.
|Chemotype of thyme (thymus vulgaris)||Dominant aromatic compound||Principal aromatic note|
|Thymus vulgaris ct thymol||Thymol||pleasing|
|Thymus vulgaris ct geraniol||Geraniol||Rose like|
|Thymus vulgaris ct γ-terpineol||gamma-terpineol||like Lilac|
|Thymus vulgaris ct carvacrol||Carvacrol||Oregano like, warming|
|Thymus vulgaris ct linalool||Linalool||Floral with citrus, lavender like|
A lesser known chemotype is eucalyptol. It radiates eucalyptus like medicinal aroma.
There is no significant difference in the thyme plant of one chemotype from another. So, the aroma of any given essential oil of thyme (red oil) would be a complex mix of thymol, rose like, lilac like with mixes of aroma of lavender and oregano. Most commonly used oil is the thymol chemotype, for it is used in medicinal preparations.
White thyme oil (the more processed one) is rich in a compound known as sabinene hydrate (also known as thujanol). This has a milder, less spicy aroma.
- Anti-inflammatory – Essential oil of thyme is strongly anti-inflammatory because of the way it restricts the function of enzymes like cyclooxygenase. These enzymes are involved in the process of generating eicosanoids that signal our body to flare up inflammatory responses. It is thus helpful in skin conditions that show redness, soreness, mild swelling and pain, like the joint pain due to arthritis. Anti-inflammatory effect is mainly attributed to thymol and carvacrol. 
- Antioxidant – Volatile compounds in thyme essential oil make it a powerful antioxidant. This is helpful in skincare.
- Anti-bacterial – It effectively kills bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus, E. coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae (causes pneumonia and other infections). Staphylococcus aureus causes skin infections. What is most promising is that thyme essential oil (from various kinds of thyme) has shown efficacy in killing even the most-deadly MRSA (multi-drug resistant staph infection). In the struggle against bacteria that have cunningly developed resistance to commonly used antibiotics, our last resort are antibiotics that have seriously debilitating side effects. Thyme oil offers promise to isolate and develop new medicines to kill such bacteria, obviating the need for last resort antibiotics like colistin. 
- Anti-fungal – Thyme oil is potent at killing Candida albicans. This annoying fungus is responsible for oral thrush, vaginal thrush (yeast infections) and can even infect the entire body, leading to candidiasis. 
- Antiseptic and disinfectant – Its strong antibacterial action makes it suitable for use in cleansing compounds for surfaces and floors.
- Gastroprotective – Thymol exerts this therapeutic property. 
- Natural Pesticide – It kills ticks and mites like the varroa destructor mites. These mites are known to destroy honeybee colonies. Thyme oil has been used in animal husbandry to disinfect poultry farms. 
Health Benefits and Uses
Thyme Essential oil for Skin
Since it is a dynamic and versatile anti-bacterial oil, it is useful in healing quite many skin infections. Oils that kill S. aureus bacteria are helpful in clearing up boils, carbuncles and folliculitis. Thyme oil is one of them. It also helps in cellulitis. However, one should be concerned if cellulitis has formed, because it is a dangerous bacterial infection of S. aureus that warrants medical attention. Essential oil can help with only mild cellulitis.
Thyme oil can be used as an antiseptic for minor cuts and scrapes. An oil-based remedy for cuts can be prepared by adding 20 drops of thyme essential oil and 20 drops of tea tree oil into 100 ml of olive oil (cold pressed) as the carrier. This can be applied onto minor wounds and even first degree burns and blisters after they have been properly washed and cleaned with alcoholic disinfectants. Olive oil is chosen as carrier oil because it helps with wound healing.
Thyme essential oil can be helpful in acne as it has been found to kill Propionibacterium acnes. These bacteria are somehow involved in the whole process of formation of inflammatory acne. A topical oily solution containing 5 drops of thyme essential and 5 drops of tea tree oil into 100 ml of jojoba oil can be applied onto the entire skin area containing acne. Formulations containing essential oils should be applied using cotton balls as it is gentler than the fingers. After applying the oil on the skin, one should wait only for 5 minutes and then cleanse it off with water. Since jojoba has been used as a carrier oil, it would not leave behind much oil after washing. After the wash and wipe, application of aloe vera gel is helpful because thyme essential oil is warming or hot in nature. This is because it falls under the category of spice essential oils, like clove, oregano, ginger etc. These can act as irritants and that is why the cooling property of aloe helps to soothe our skin after the essential oil has performed its bacteria killing action.
Tea tree oil is the most widely used essential oil to lessen acne. Among other essential oils evaluated for acne, essential oils of thyme, cinnamon and rose stand out. 
Thyme oil and Joint Pain
Powerful anti-inflammatory action of red thyme essential oil can be taken advantage of in minimizing joint pain due to arthritis or gout. Ideal base oil for joint pain relief is castor oil as it is viscous, dense and does not dry out quickly. It is absorbed slowly and can serve as a delivery agent for anti-inflammatory compounds from essential oils. However, thyme oil alone may not be of much help. Some of the best essential oils for arthritic pain are frankincense (due to boswellic acids), peppermint, turmeric (contains sesquiterpenes like ar-turmerone), myrrh, ginger (because of its gingerols) and bitter orange oil. These have proven efficacy in reducing joint pain. Thyme can also be added to an aromatherapy blend containing one or more of the above-mentioned oils.
Thyme oil for Respiratory Infections
For centuries, thyme has been used to relieve and even treat infections of the sinus, upper and lower respiratory tract. Thyme oil embodies this therapeutic property. It can be used to get relief from various kinds of respiratory problems, not just infectious conditions like pneumonia.
Add 4 to 5 drops (total) in a diffuser and let the aroma pervade the room. Its warming aroma provides relief from cough, bronchial catarrh and in pertussis. ,  A select group of essential oils comprising thyme, eucalyptus, tea tree oil, peppermint and anise are most potent at resolving conditions afflicting the respiratory system according to the European pharmacopoeia.
Smell of thyme was used in ancient times to bolster courage and to reduce nightmares at night. Essential oil of thyme does have some impact on the entire hormonal system, specifically on the thyroid. It is used in aromatherapy to sharpen mental faculties. Its aroma has a mucolytic effect, aiding in loosening up of thick mucus and its expulsion. It helps to clear up the lungs, throat and sinuses. When phlegm gets loosened up, it can reduce severity of cough. Thyme oil diffused into the air can exert antibacterial activity within air itself. In fact, such powerful antibacterial effect has been proven for some oils like eucalyptus and tea tree oil. 
Thyme essential oil which is rich in linalool is helpful in reducing anxiety, stress and insomnia. All of these effects can be attributed to linalool.
For common cold, thyme oil would not be as effective as eucalyptus oil because eucalyptus oil has powerful antiviral properties. Common cold is a viral infection and it responds to antiviral substances.
Thyme oil and Hair Loss
A double-blind study was conducted way back in 1998 to evaluate efficacy of a combination of four essential oils (thyme, rosemary, lavender and cedarwood) in reverting back hair loss that occurs in patches (alopecia areata). More than 40% of the people who used essential oils noticed an improvement in hair reemergence as compared to only about 15% of those on placebo. This was verified using photographic evidence. 
One can make this remedy at home. 0.5% solution V/V (volume fraction) in base oil for each essential oil should suffice. So, we must add 10 drops each of cedarwood, thyme, rosemary and lavender) into 100 ml of base oil. The study suggests using either jojoba oil or grapeseed oil. Of the two, grapeseed oil is lighter and similar in consistency to hair oil, so that is preferable. This oil is to be massaged onto the scalp. One must surely do a patch test on the arm to see if there is any skin sensitivity. If the skin shows some reaction, this remedy should not be used as the scalp is even more sensitive. If you can tolerate it well, then the oil should be massaged into the scalp once daily. Lot of patience is required as this treatment takes around seven months to bear results.
People use thyme essential oil for many more purposes.
- It can cure a nail fungus because it is a potent antifungal. This is because of thymol. Some people even see nail fungus clearing up if they apply Vicks VapoRub because that too contains thymol. But one cannot apply essential oil directly on the skin, ever. For fungal infections, a solution of 20 drops of thyme oil per 100 ml of coconut oil is ideal, as coconut oil itself is a strong antifungal.
- Thyme essential oil diffused in the room seems to reduce snoring. But diffusing aromatic compounds while you are asleep can be fraught with danger. Some volatile compounds like linalool are known to reduce blood pressure to dangerously low levels.
- Thyme’s aroma is used to mask body odor. It is a natural deodorant. Since one cannot apply essential oil directly towards the armpits like spray deodorants, it can be used in bathwater. 3 – 7 drops of essential oil are enough for an entire bathtub full of water. A bath using this water helps to keep odor causing bacteria in check.
- It is used by some in massage formulations to reduce appearance of varicose veins and spider veins. But there are better options than thyme oil for this. Oils that show proven results for such issues are Bay essential oil (Laurus nobilis) and Rock rose essential oil (Cistus ladanifer). 
- As a mouthwash, 1 drop of thyme essential in one cup of lukewarm water is used. This helps to clear up fungi residing on the tongue, mainly the Candida fungus. And our breath also smells better.
Composition of volatiles in thyme oil varies quite a lot, depending on the location where it is grown and distilled, the chemotype, variety of thyme and other environmental factors. A representative composition is depicted in table below.
|Volatile compound||Percentage in oil|
Since the dominant volatile is thymol, this essential oil must be coming from a thymol chemotype.
Side Effects, Safety and Toxicity Issues
Thyme essential oil is among the stronger and more sensitizing essential oils. It is harsh and should not be consumed internally. It is only meant for topical application. At the most it can be used as mouthwash or gargle after precise dilution. Thyme volatiles may cause changes in our hormonal secretions and can affect the thyroid. People suffering from hypertension should not use thyme oil. It should also not be used in vicinity of pregnant women and lactating mothers. Infants should also not be exposed to it. People suffering from epilepsy should avoid inhalation of thyme essential oil. As a topical agent, it can sensitize and irritate skin when even a single drop is poured undiluted. Therefore, a patch test is pre-requisite to further use.
Buying and Storage
Because of the many variations of thyme, one should carefully note the species and chemotype of the plant. Buy from companies that are willing to show data about their product. When it comes to thymol content, essential oil distilled in the south of France performs best. Other countries that produce thyme essential oil are the United States, Spain, Germany, Algeria and many others around the Mediterranean Sea.
Price of thyme essential depends significantly on the amount of thymol and carvacrol it contains. 15 ml oil can easily cost upwards of 20 USD. Cheaper oils are generally adulterated with turpentine oil with rosemary. To get the color right, alkanet root is used as adulterant.  Reputed firms having decades of experience in distilling essential oils and that use organic produce, best in class storage and transportation technology are the best bet to obtain true undegraded thyme essential oil.
Its shelf life is poor, about 1 year or so because it is mostly made up of phenols and monoterpenes that oxidize quickly in comparison to oils like those of frankincense or turmeric that last much longer.
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- Activities of ten essential oils towards Propionibacterium acnes and PC-3, A-549 and MCF-7 cancer cells. Zu Y. et al, Molecules.
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- Essential oils in the treatment of respiratory tract diseases. Györgyi Horváth* and Kamilla Ács, Flavor and Fragrance Journal.
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- Botanical.com -Thyme, Garden by Mrs M. Grieve.