“Thieves oil” essential oil blends may be marketed as proprietary formulas today, but herbalists have passed along recipes for the famed “four thieves” remedy for literally hundreds of years. The date and place of the "Vinegar of the Four Thieves" origin ranges from 1413 somewhere-in-Europe to 1630 Toulouse to 1722 Marseilles. The basic legend has it that four robbers caught rifling through homes in plague-ridden France attained their freedom by revealing why they never got sick from the homes of infected patients. Apparently, the thieves created an herbal vinegar which they drank and sprinkled on themselves every two hours.
The tales of what this concoction contained vary wildly. Modern “four thieves” blends often focus on four to five essential oils. Medical research bears out that these oils—usually lemon, rosemary, clove, cinnamon and eucalyptus—have powerful therapeutic benefits. Add a commercial or homemade four thieves blend to soaps, household cleaners or toothpastes. Always ask your physician before attempting any herbal self-treatment.
A 2006 study conducted at the Entomology Research Institute in India determined that several essential oils are effective in fighting bacterial strains, especially cinnamon oil. “Cinnamon oil has the most potential bactericidal properties. We believe that the present investigation together with previous studies provide support to the antibacterial properties of cinnamon oil,” the report concluded. Other strong performers in the study included rosemary oil, lemon oil and clove oil—all key components of modern thieves oil blends.
Additional research at Germany’s University of Kiel in 2009 confirmed the traditional medicinal uses of several essential oils, especially cinnamon, lemon, lemongrass and thyme. These four were considered the most effective in fighting bacteria—specifically, six Staphylococcus varieties, including the dreaded MRSA, four Streptococcus strains and three Candida strains. Among the other oils showing “considerable efficacy” against the strains were clove bud and eucalyptus.
Combats Antibiotic Resistance
A 2007 New York Times “Health” article pointed out the dangers of turning to antibacterial soaps, hand-sanitizers and cleaning products. Using these products as a preventative measure, the New York Times noted, may contribute to bacterial strains which are antibiotic-resistant. In other words, when we become sick and really do need antibiotics, they may not be effective because of the widespread use of household antibacterial products. Cinnamon oil, a key component of the thieves oil blend, can help because it contains antimicrobial properties useful for household cleaning and hand washing, according to The New York Times. The column referred to a homemade recipe for “thieves oil” hand wash recommended by pediatrician Lawrence D. Rosen, in which a few drops of cinnamon, lemon and eucalyptus essential oils are added to water. A similar effect could be created by adding commercial thieves oil or your own essential oil blend to liquid castile soap.
While most people associate thieves oil with its antiseptic properties, the individual oils each bring additional benefits to the blend. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy lists both lemon and rosemary as their picks for uplifting and energizing essential oils. NAHA’s picks for immunity-boosting essential oils include eucalyptus and rosemary. The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that rosemary is a traditional remedy for joint pain and memory loss, while eucalyptus appears in countless formulas to ease coughs, flu and bronchitis. Finally, Medline points to “good scientific evidence” for using clove oil for dental pain.
- "A Garden Herbal;" Anthony Gardiner; 1996
- Secret of Thieves: Thieves Essential Oil
With a focus on food, nutrition, cocktails and the latest dining trends, Melissa J. has been a freelance writer for more than 15 years. Her specialties include articles for such publications as SF Chronicle and National Geographic Green Living, as well as blog posts for the hospitality industry. Her previous positions include newspaper staff reporter and communications specialist for a nonprofit agency.