A voice for
herbal medicine

We share traditional, scientific and practical insights written by experienced herbalists and health experts from the world of herbal medicine and natural health

Thyme oil is one of the most antiseptic of natural oils


Thymus vulgaris Lamiaceae

Thyme is a fragrant culinary herb with longstanding traditional use as a calming remedy for respiratory and digestive systems. Thyme oil provides a modest contribution to the effect of the whole herb.

Sustainability Status

Sustainability status

Not currently on risk lists but complete data may be missing on the status of the species. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Key benefits
  • Coughs
  • Digestion
  • Mouth remedy
  • How does it feel?

    Most of us are familiar with the flavour of thyme in cooking. To be reminded of this take a leaf of fresh of dried thyme and chew it. The strong sharp hit of the essential oil, especially the thymol and carvacrol constituents is immediately apparent, an almost chemical antiseptic sensation, reminding us that fresh thyme is a great antiseptic for inflamed gums, mouth and sore throat. The flavour otherwise is rather bitter and there is a noticeable astringency (linked to the high tannin levels). The familiar thyme flavour is actually a lingering aftertaste.

    Distilling these traditional characteristics we can see that thyme has quite a powerful presence, though overall effect is relaxing, with significant extra support for digestion.

  • What can I use it for?

    Thyme comes into its own as a remedy for coughs and tightness in the chest. It is a first choice to calm the dry irritating cough of children, and for any cough associated with airway tightness or wheezing. It is even worth trying to relieve ongoing symptoms of asthma.

    It may also help with more productive coughs where there is infection in the lungs. Old herbals used to recommend thyme to “purge phlegm” and it was said to “causeth easy expectorations of tough phlegm“.

    This is also of course a familiar culinary herb originally used to help digestion as well as flavouring food. It can be relied upon to settle upset digestion in various forms: dyspepsia, colic and irritable bowel in particular.

    It is likely to support a healthy microbiome too and can be used as part of a prebiotic/probiotic regime to correct gut dysbiosis problems.

    In its most immediate effect the fresh herb makes a great refreshing and antiseptic mouth cleanser if chewed.

  • Into the heart of thyme

    The essential oil of thyme is the major influence in the antispasmodic action of the herb, seen in relaxing airway spasm and nervous coughing, and as a carminative effect in the digestive tract. The oil’s most notable constituents are thymol and carvacrol which are both notably antiseptic.

    In the form of the whole herb this effect is most likely to contribute to probiotic benefits in the gut, and locally in the mouth, rather than being seen as a substitute antibiotic. The oil as a whole does however contribute to the expectorant action of the herb, helping to clear the passages as it is expelled through the airways.

    As well as the immediate reflex hit from the taste buds of the strong essential oil content, the bitters in thyme stimulate digestive activity, while the tannins provide an appreciable local astringent effect.

  • Traditional uses

    Thyme has been a popular calming cough remedy, often used as a cough syrup. Thyme tea, sweetened with honey or sugar, would be prescribed for whooping cough, sore throats and catarrh. Again as a tea it was used as a settle colic and irritable bowel, to treat dyspepsia and to control fever in common colds.

    Thyme is used in France for liver disease and there are wider traditions of its use for digestive problems.

  • Traditional actions

  • Traditional energetic actions

    Herbal energetics are the descriptions Herbalists have given to plants, mushrooms, lichens, foods, and some minerals based on the direct experience of how they taste, feel, and work in the body. All traditional health systems use these principles to explain how the environment we live in and absorb, impacts our health. Find out more about traditional energetic actions in our article “An introduction to herbal energetics“.

  • What practitioners say

    Respiratory: Thyme is particularly effective at relieving spasmodic coughing and is also indicated in any respiratory conditions characterised by excess levels of mucus, phlegm or catarrh.

    Immune: The thymol component of thyme adds antibiotic, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-infective properties. In strong solutions or simply chewed as a fresh herb thyme will help fight infection of the gums, throat and larynx.

    Digestive: The range of volatile oils, including thymol, also help to relieve digestive spasm acting as a carminative in indigestion. Thyme is a modest bitter, so stimulating upper digestive activities, and it is likely to be a good corrector of the gut environment, useful in cases of enteric infections. All these effects will be augmented by increased digestive secretions.

    External: Useful in massage oils and liniments for aching joints, muscular pain, cuts & wounds. Gargle for sore throats, tonsillitis; mouthwash for infected, bleeding gums; douche for thrush and other vaginal infections. Lotion for hair; inhalant for coughs, asthma, colds, catarrh, sinusitis.

  • Research

    Most of the clinical trial reports for thyme are when this is combined in blends with other remedies like primrose root and ivy leaf. There are no reliable research studies for the effects of the herb on its own.

    Adding thyme to olive oil compared to consuming olive oil alone decreased LDL levels in subjects with high cholesterol levels, This was linked to improved bifidobacterial levels in the gut microbiome (1).

    Thyme oil on its own is very antibacterial and completely inhibited bacterial growth at concentrations of less than 2% (2). An important ingredient here is the often overlooked carvacrol which has its own pronounced antiseptic activity (3).

    Some of this activity is also transferred to decoctions and to some extent infusions, with the resulting aqueous extractions active particularly against gram-positive (Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus epidermidis) and gram-negative (Escherichia coliKlebsiella spp., Pseudomonas aeruginosaEnterococcus aerogenesProteus vulgaris and Enterobacter sakazakii) bacteria (4). This profile adds to the view that the bacteriostatic value of whole thyme preparations is on the gut microbiome.

  • Did you know?

    Thymol in thyme oil is 20 times more powerful than the standard antiseptic phenol (the active ingredient of Dettol).

Additional information

  • Botanical description

    Thyme is a perennial aromatic bush indigenous to the western Mediterranean and southern Italy. It can grow to heights of 30cm, its leaves are small, narrow and elliptical in shape and are a characteristic deep green colour with a strong aroma. Its flowers are also small, delicate and a pale pink/purple in colour. It is often found clinging in rocky crevices or growing in apparently barren soils.

    Alternate botanical names:

    The official medicinal monographs in the British Pharmacopoeia and the European Pharmacopoeia allow the use of whole leaf and flowers of Thymus zygis (Spanish thyme) as well as Thymus vulgaris.

  • Common names

    • Common or garden thyme (Eng)
    • Gartenthymian (Ger)
    • Thymianblätter (Ger)
    • Thym (Fr)
    • Timo (Ital)
    • Ajagandha (Sanskrit)
  • Safety

    Thyme herb is very safe. The oil is a powerful extract of the herb and should not be used internally.

  • Dosage

    3 to12 g/day of dried herb or in a tea

  • Constituents

    • Essential oil (1.0 to 2.5%) predominantly phenols, thymol and carvacrol and their corresponding monoterpene precursors (p-cymene and gamma-terpinene)
    • Carnosol, rosmanols, galdosol and carnosic acid
    • Tannins (10%)
    • Flavonoids
    • Salicylates
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
  • Recipe

    Breathe Tea

    This fresh and uplifting ‘Breathe’ tea recipe is going awaken your lungs and help you breathe. Use this if you have a cough, are feeling tight-chested, or you just want to relish the joy of breathing a bit more deeply.


    • Lemongrass leaf 4g
    • Thyme leaf 3g
    • Tulsi leaf 3g
    • Ginger root powder 2g
    • Aniseed 2g
    • Peppermint oil 1 drop
    • Honey to taste

    This will serve 2–3 cups of lung nourishing tea.


    1. Put all of the ingredients (except for the honey) in a pot.
    2. Add 500ml/18fl oz freshly boiled filtered water.
    3. Leave to steep for 10–15 minutes, then strain.
    4. Add a dash of honey to taste.

    Recipe from Cleanse, Restore, Nurture by Sebastian Pole

  • References

    1. Martín-Peláez S, Mosele JI, Pizarro N, et al. (2017) Effect of virgin olive oil and thyme phenolic compounds on blood lipid profile: implications of human gut microbiota. Eur J Nutr. 56(1): 119–131
    2. Mullen KA, Lee AR, Lyman RL, et al. (2014) Short communication: an in vitro assessment of the antibacterial activity of plant-derived oils. J Dairy Sci. 97(9): 5587–5591
    3. Sharifi-Rad M, Varoni EM, Iriti M, et al. (2018) Carvacrol and human health: A comprehensive review. Phytother Res. 32 (9): 1675–1687
    4. Martins N, Barros L, Santos-Buelga C, et al. (2015)  Decoction, infusion and hydroalcoholic extract of cultivated thyme: antioxidant and antibacterial activities, and phenolic characterisation. Food Chem. 167: 131–137
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

Sign up to our Newsletter

Sign up to our newsletter to receive the very latest in herbal insights.

Sign up to our newsletter