In the quest to stay healthy during this brutal cold and flu season, some people are turning to oregano oil as a natural remedy, with proponents citing a variety of health claims. But can it really do anything for your body?
Search for oregano oil online and you’ll find websites touting its “amazing benefits,” including purported healing properties, the prevention and treatment of infections, easing a sore throat, boosting your immune system and more. Some people ingest it, others rub it on their skin.
Comedian Billy Eichner recently tweeted that actress Shirley MacLaine advised him and others to put several drops of oregano oil “under your tongue to protect against illness.”
Actress Rachael Harris praised it as an illness fighter: “Momma’s got to get her oil of oregano on STAT,” she wrote on Instagram this week.
But health experts were more skeptical.
“While oregano oil does contain an active ingredient, there is no credible evidence to support using this as part of your germ-fighting toolbox,” said Madelyn Fernstrom, NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor.
“Personal testimony is not evidence, and while some people swear by the benefits, this doesn’t count as scientific validation that rules out other reasons [why] symptoms improve.”
Oregano oil shows promising health benefits, but much more data is needed to warrant it “as the next big thing in the treatment various diseases,” added Kristin Kirkpatrick, the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio.
Why health experts are skeptical:
The active ingredient in oregano oil is carvacrol, which did act as an antimicrobial in a published study of mouse cells in a dish, but that can’t compare to the complexity of cells in the living body, Fernstrom noted. It’s unclear whether carvacrol is active inside your body and translating what happens in a dish directly to what happens in a living human is theory and speculation, not fact, she added.
Other studies show anti-fungal, anti-bacterial capabilities, and anti-viral activity, but many were done on animals in a laboratory setting, Kirkpatrick noted.
Some farmers have been raising chickens on feed mixed with oregano oil as an antibiotic substitute and say the method works well in keeping the birds disease-free, The New York Times reported.
But when it comes to humans, “there is no persuasive evidence to demonstrate that oil of oregano does anything useful in or on our bodies,” noted the website Science-Based Medicine in a 2011 analysis. “If you’re ill, stick to the proven science, and save your oregano for cooking.”
Dr. Andrew Weil, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, also advised caution.
“I urge you to view claims about the healing properties of oregano oil skeptically,” he wrote last month.
What you need to know:
Oregano oil is available in pills and capsules, and in liquid form. It’s not classified as a food, but as a dietary supplement — with all the lack of rules associated with that class, Fernstrom noted. There is no regulation of purity or dosage, no requirement for science-based efficacy and no requirement for reporting any negative effects.
“So let the user beware,” she said. “Because there is no regulation, you don’t know how much you’re ingesting. Some preparations are more concentrated, and others are diluted with olive oil. So the ‘effective’ dosage is highly questionable.”
And just because it’s “natural” doesn’t make it safe, Fernstrom added. It’s possible some people might have an allergic reaction to oregano oil, just like many other food-based compounds.
“Skip it and spend your money on true health promoters like fresh fruits and vegetables, soap and hand sanitizer,” Fernstrom said.
“I don’t think I would rely solely on it for treatment of flu,” Kirkpatrick noted.
Weil advises against ingesting oregano oil, but approves of using a few drops as part of steam inhalation therapy for sinus infections. “Apart from that, I don’t recommend it,” he wrote.