Essential Oils for Cold Sores: Do They Work?

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.

How Do Essential Oils Work?

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.

Peppermint Oil

Of the essential oils, peppermint oil is the most closely linked to improvements in cold sores and other herpes symptoms.

Peppermint oil has been a popular natural antiviral for decades. Widely used as a natural cold and flu treatment, it’s thought to improve the immune system and reduce the replication speed of common viruses.

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, “reduced viral titers of both herpesviruses by more than 90%.”

So, is peppermint oil a miracle cure for cold sores? Not quite. Although the oil is scientifically linked to a measurable reduction in viral activity, cold sores still require several weeks to heal and fully disappear from the lips and mouth.

However, small amounts of peppermint oil are very unlikely to slow down the healing process after a cold sore outbreak, making this essential oil one that’s worth keeping in the cupboard.

Lavender Oil

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 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

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?

Mixed with a milder oil for safer application to the skin, 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.   

Chamomile Oil

Chamomile oil is an essential oil that’s been studied as a potential treatment for drug-resistant strains of herpes. According to a 2008 scientific study, chamomile oil is, “capable of exerting a direct effect on HSV” and is highly active against drug-resistant strains of the herpes virus.

Interestingly, scientific testing has found that chamomile is highly active against strains of the herpes virus resistant to acyclovir, a widely used antiviral medication. Like clove oil, it’s usually mixed with a less irritating oil and applied topically to the affected skin.

Is chamomile oil enough to treat cold sores on its own? That’s debatable. However, it certainly shows promising results and could potentially be a helpful natural treatment for cold sores and other herpes lesions.

Tea Tree Oil

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 viral load in vitro by 57.9% for HSV-1 and 75.4% for HSV-2.

Tea tree oil is fairly potent, so it’s typically used in combination with a carrier oil when applied to the skin.

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 treatment for cold sores.

Thyme Oil

Thyme oil also has some level of antiviral activity, with a 2010 study indicating that the essential oil is capable of reducing viral infectivity by >96% and HSV specifically by approximately >80%.

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

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

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.

Eucalyptus Oil

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% for HSV-1 and 75.4% 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.

Learn More About Cold Sore Treatments

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. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.