Medically reviewed by Patrick Carroll, MD
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/6/2020
Search online and you’ll find numerous articles proclaiming the benefits of essential oils for cold sores. Essential oils are a popular natural treatment for various ailments, but are they of value if you have recurring cold sores caused by herpes?
Like with most natural health treatments, the answer is “yes and no.” While some essential oils are linked to improvements in herpes symptoms and healing, there’s mixed or little evidence for others.
Below, we’ll take a look at how essential oils work, and which ones work for cold sores. We’ll also look at how essential oils compare to more conventional cold sore treatments, such as antiviral drugs.
Essential oils are concentrated plant oil extracts created through a distillation process. Each oil contains a highly concentrated form of the naturally occurring oils found in plants, like lavender and peppermint.
Over the last few decades, essential oils have become a popular natural treatment for a variety of ailments and health conditions. Most people use essential oils through skin application or by inhaling small amounts of essential oils through a diffuser.
Like most “natural” treatments and cures, the evidence for essential oils is mixed. While some oils are scientifically linked to improvements in health and relief from some diseases, the total amount of scientific evidence for most essential oils is fairly slim.
As such, it’s best to think of essential oils as a supplementary treatment for cold sores that you can use alongside proven antiviral medications.
Below, we’ve listed some of the most popular essential oils for cold sores, along with the scientific data to back up claims about each product.
Of the essential oils, peppermint oil is one of the most widely used to improve cold sores and other herpes symptoms.
Peppermint oil has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. Widely used as a natural cold and flu treatment, research suggests that it possesses antiviral, antibacterial and antiseptic properties.
Scientific studies seem to back up these beliefs, at least when it comes to treating the herpes virus.
In a 2003 study, researchers found that concentrations of peppermint oil, “exhibited high levels of virucidal activity against HSV-1 and HSV-2” and that the essential oil, in higher concentrations “reduced viral titers of both herpes viruses by more than 90 percent.”
So, is peppermint oil a miracle cure for cold sores?
Well, not quite. Although there’s some evidence to suggest peppermint oil may yield a measurable reduction in viral activity, cold sores still require several weeks to heal and fully disappear from the lips and mouth.
However, since small amounts of peppermint oil are unlikely to slow down the healing process after a cold sore outbreak, it may be worth keeping in the cupboard.
While there’s no link between lavender oil and herpes, there is some evidence to suggest that lavender oil can play a role in reducing inflammation and discomfort.
This has made it a popular natural treatment for a variety of skin conditions, ranging from mild skin rashes to herpes outbreaks. Most people apply lavender oil directly to herpes sores for a mild reduction in itching, discomfort and pain.
Since there’s no research-based evidence that lavender oil actually helps to treat herpes or heal cold sores, it’s best to think of this as a supplementary treatment for cold sores rather than as a proven herpes treatment. For faster healing, it’s best to stick with proven antiviral medications.
Clove oil has been studied as a topical anesthetic, with some evidence to suggest it reduces pain when applied to the skin similarly to substances like benzocaine. As a result of this, clove oil is widely used in certain parts of the world as a natural treatment for toothaches.
But what about clove oil for cold sores?
Since undiluted clove oil (like other essential oils) is potentially harmful to damaged skin, diluted clove oil may be able to partially numb cold sores, making outbreaks slightly easier to tolerate.
As with all essential oils, clove oil is not a scientifically proven treatment for cold sores or other herpes lesions.
According to a 2008 scientific study, chamomile oil is, “capable of exerting a direct effect on HSV” and is active against drug-resistant strains of the herpes virus.
Interestingly, this same study found that chamomile is highly active against strains of the herpes virus resistant to acyclovir, a widely used antiviral medication.
Is chamomile oil enough to treat cold sores on its own? That’s debatable. However, it shows promising results and could potentially be a helpful natural treatment for cold sores and other herpes lesions.
Like peppermint and chamomile oil, tea tree oil is linked to reductions in the viral activity of the herpes virus in studies. In fact, in a 2001 study, researchers found that tea tree oil reduced plaque formation by 98.2 percent for HSV-1 and 93.0 percent for HSV-2.
Like other essential oils, tea tree oil for cold sores shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for proven antiviral drugs like valacyclovir. However, as studies into its antiviral properties note, it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on as a promising possible adjunct treatment for cold sores.
Thyme oil also has some level of antiviral activity, with a 2010 study indicating that the essential oil among others is capable of reducing viral infectivity by greater than 96 percent and their major chemical components inhibited HSV specifically by approximately greater than 80 percent.
As always, these findings need to be taken in context. Thyme oil hasn’t been extensively tested like antiviral medication and shouldn’t be viewed as a proven treatment for cold sores. However, like other essential oils, it certainly shows promise as a potential natural treatment.
Lemon balm oil is another essential oil that has unique results when it comes to treating herpes outbreaks.
According to a 2008 study, lemon balm oil almost completely inhibited viral infectivity when used as a test treatment for HSV-1 and HSV-2 in monkey kidney cells.
This test was in vitro, meaning it may not necessarily mean that lemon balm oil is effective in human patients. Still, it’s an interesting signal that lemon balm oil could be of value as a natural treatment for the herpes virus.
Vanilla oil is occasionally recommended online as a natural treatment for herpes outbreaks. For the most part, proponents of vanilla oil recommend applying it directly to cold sores as they begin to develop.
As with most essential oils, there’s little if any scientific evidence to prove that vanilla oil shows any real antiviral activity. With this said, vanilla has some mild anti-inflammatory properties that could make it useful for temporary relief from the discomfort caused by herpes sores.
So, is vanilla oil a proven herpes treatment? Not at all. At this point, there’s no scientific study data to show that vanilla oil has any effect on HSV-1 or HSV-2, putting this essential oil in the “unproven treatment” category.
Finally, eucalyptus oil is an essential oil with some amount of evidence to back up the claims of it treating herpes. In a 2001 antiviral study, researchers found that eucalyptus oil reduced virus titers by 57.9 percent for HSV-1 and 75.4 percent for HSV-2 when tested in vitro.
The researchers also found that eucalyptus oil is capable of exerting a direct antiviral effect on the herpes virus, both as HSV-1 and HSV-2. It’s an interesting development that makes this oil an area of study as a natural herpes treatment.
Again, it’s important to keep these findings in perspective. While there is some study data that shows antiviral benefits from eucalyptus oil, it’s far from a proven treatment.
Interested in learning more about treating cold sores? Our Valacyclovir 101 guide will tell you all you need to know about one of the world's most trusted antiviral cold sore treatments, including how it works, how long it takes to start working and what kind of side effects you might experience.