What do we mean when we talk about the antifungal properties of an essential oil? As we know each essential oil is a complex synergy of many different naturally occurring chemical components, each of which brings their own unique property to that particular essential oil. When essential oils are described, they are often described in terms of these properties. One does need to keep in mind however, that although many essential oils may be described as having the same particular property they will not all be equal in their effectiveness of that property.
So what are Fungi?
Although they were once thought to be plants they are in fact neither plants nor animals and are in fact, classified as their own kingdom. Some are so small they can only be seen through a microscope (examples include yeasts like Candida and molds like aspergilli), while others can be seen with the naked eye (examples include bread molds and mushrooms).
Fungi can grow in long, thin threads (hyphae) or in round shapes (yeasts while some can go through both forms during their life cycle. Some fungi are spread through microscopic spores. As these spores are often present in the air, they can be inhaled or come in contact with the body’s surface, primarily the skin. Therefore fungal infections mostly start on the skin or in the lungs. The up side is that not all spores will actually cause infection and with the exception of some superficial skin infections, fungal infections are rarely passed from one person to the next. Provided the immune system is functioning normally, fungal infections will not spread to the deeper organs of the body.
Some types of fungi (example Candida) are normally present on body surfaces or in the intestine. Although normally harmless, these fungi can cause localized infections of the skin and nails, vagina, mouth and sinuses. When the normal balances that keep fungi in check are upset, infections can occur. For instance when people take antibiotics, the helpful bacteria, which generally keeps the fungi in check, can be destroyed. This allows the fungi to grow unchecked. Once the bacteria grows back the balance is usually restored. The structure and chemical makeup of fungi make them difficult to kill.
Fungal infections of the skin are quite common. Most frequently they are restricted to the stratum corneum (top layer of the skin), nails and hair, but they can penetrate other tissues. Infections here tend to be chronic and can be difficult to eradicate.
There are two main groups of fungi involved in skin infections – dermatophyte infections (ringworm)(tinea) and yeasts. Ringworm causes a scaly, crusted rash that may itch. The degree of inflammation will depend on the site affected and the type of infecting species. It can however be severe especially in chronic infections.Candida albicans is a yeast that is found in low numbers on healthy intact skin, however it can proliferate rapidly on damaged skin causing candidiasis infections when conditions are favorable. Yeast infections occur most frequently in moist areas of the body. Although Candida albicans and other Candida yeasts are the most frequent offenders, other yeast groups are also known to cause illness.
Many essential oils have been reported as having an antifungal effect and in fact quite a bit of research has been done with a number of different essential oils, showing their fungicidal (capable of killing fungi) and fungistatic (capable of inhibiting the growth of fungi) effects.
The following table of essential oils that have been shown to have effective antifungal properties is adapted from Aromadermatology, aromatherapy in the treatment and care of common skin conditions by Janetta Bensouilah and Philippa Buck and published by Radcliff Publishing 2006.
Because fungi require humidity to thrive, choose the carrier for your essential oil synergy carefully. Ointments are not a good choice and should rather be avoided. Gels, lotions and cream bases are better choices. Remember to use appropriate dilutions and pay attention to any oils that may be contraindicated for the person who will be using the blend.
As mentioned before fungi can be difficult to kill and in the case of nail infections it has been known to take a year of twice-daily applications to be combat the infection. Most infections seem to need a minimum of one month’s daily application to see any results.
Janetta Bensouilah and Philippa Buck, Aromadermatology, aromatherapy in the treatment and care of common skin conditions, Radcliff Publishing 2006.
Beverley Hawkins, Aromatherapy 201 Course Notes