The Unexpectedly Exciting Story of Clove Oil

close up of cloves spice

Most old wives’ tales are mere superstition; a piece of advice passed down through generations of women. Because they are not rooted in modern understandings of science, most of the time they are simply dismissed as inaccurate or simply untrue.

One of the most famous, “feed a cold and starve a fever,” though well known, is absolutely plain wrong. Logically, your body needs food and fluids in order to heal itself. On the other hand, there are natural remedies that may seem like old wives’ tales, but now have peer-reviewed science standing strong behind them. The use of plants, via essential oils, is one of these legendary tales that are actually, in many cases, proving true.

Science is saying: clove essential oil is a powerhouse. The secret behind this ancient essential oil? Eugenol, which is not only its most abundant ingredient, it is also responsible for its aromatic and beneficial effects. Clove essential oil can contain anywhere from 80-90% eugenol, making it nature’s most potent source of this sought-after compound.

In vitro (i.e. tested in a dish or test tube), eugenol has been shown to have antibacterial, antifungal, antioxidant, and antineoplastic activity. So what is the story behind cloves and eugenol, and what might their future bring us?

Clove’s Turbulent History

It might sound like an exaggeration to claim that something as innocuous and mundane as an ingredient in the spice cabinet played a dramatic role in the history of the world—but in the case of clove, it is true!

Derived from the Latin word clavus, which means nail, the clove plant is native to the Moluccas, a chain of small Indonesian islands that were formerly known as the Spice Islands. Once upon a time, clove (Syzygium aromaticum, also known as Eugenia caryophyllata) was at the center of European trade wars and brutal colonization efforts that lasted over three centuries. At the time, this luxurious plant was worth more than its weight in gold, and the Dutch even ceded the island of Manhattan to the British in order to maintain control of these lucrative spice-growing territories. 

Believed to be first imported into China as early as 200 BCE, clove gained increasing popularity in Europe by the 8th century. Although the medicinal use of clove in China dates back over 2000 years, Europeans primarily used clove to flavor meats and bakery products (at least until the 17th century, but more on that later).

So sought after and valuable was the spice, that the Portuguese and then the Dutch colonized the Spice Islands beginning in 1514, maintaining agricultural control and gouging prices until the 18th century. The modern-day opulence of cities like Lisbon and Amsterdam is in part due to this colonial endeavor and the notorious profiteering afforded from spices like clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon. 

It wasn’t until the French smuggled clove seed out of the Moluccas in 1770 that the Dutch lost their economic monopoly on this luxury spice. Prices dropped, and clove began to grow in other parts of the world, including Madagascar, Tanzania, and Sri Lanka. Today, the spice is commonly sold as intact flower buds or as a ground powder. Clove Essential Oil is produced by distilling the dried flower buds of the clove tree, and produces the most potent source of eugenol.

Early and Modern Dentistry

In addition to its long history as a beloved cooking spice, clove has also been used for over three hundred years in the field of dentistry. It was first documented in France for the treatment of a toothache in 1649, and current research supports what dentists have long known: eugenol is uniquely effective in preventing, treating, and relieving oral pain.

Cavities, which are small and permanent areas of decay on the teeth, are common among children and adults, alike. Left untreated, these spots can grow larger over time, and eventually cause toothaches, nerve pain, and in extreme circumstances, life-threatening tooth abscesses. Enamel is the naturally protective surface on the outside of a tooth, and when intact, can significantly reduce the likelihood of cavities and tooth infections. However, acidic foods and beverages, conditions like acid reflux, and genetics can all permanently damage enamel in a process known as dental erosion.

Mouth rinses that contain fluoride are commonly prescribed to prevent dental erosion, but the other ingredients they contain can alter microbial flora of the mouth and cause unpleasant side effects. A 2012 study showed that clove essential oil can help prevent dental erosion in a similar way as fluoride, at a potentially lower cost and without other side effects for the patient. Another study conducted in 2016 tested clove against 10 other plant products in inhibiting the growth of cavity-causing organisms, and found that clove was the most effective

Besides cavity prevention, clove oil is also used as a topical anesthetic to relieve dental pain. It works similarly to the capsicum found in peppers by stimulating the production of a protein that desensitizes nerve endings near the surface of the skin and mouth. This effect was confirmed by a 2006 study that tested the pain-relieving abilities of clove oil before dental procedures, and found that there was no significant difference in pain scores between patients who received a “homemade” clove gel and the now traditional dental anesthetic, benzocaine. 

To relieve toothache-associated pain prior to a dental visit, try leveraging the power of eugenol:

  1. Dilute a few drops of FDA approved Clove Essential Oil in a food-safe carrier oil.
  2. Soak the solution in a clean cotton ball.
  3. Apply the cotton ball to the sore tooth, avoiding contact with the gums. Wait a few minutes as sometimes there can be a delay in feeling relief.

Reapply every two hours as needed. Stop application if any discomfort or irritation is experienced, and be mindful to not swallow or digest the solution.

Using Clove Oil Around the Home

Clove oil is consistently top of the class when it comes to its antimicrobial properties, and there is no better place to take advantage of this than around the home. It is especially good at penetrating the membrane of bacteria on a cellular level. And while some oils just inhibit the growth of microbes, a 2012 study found clove oil was actually able to kill staph bacteria, thus making it a mild disinfectant

And it’s not just bacteria that clove sends packing—clove essential oil is considered one of the most effective natural products at stopping the growth of various fungi. Whether it’s mold in the bathroom or kitchen, or the strains of yeast responsible for fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot, clove can stop these undesirable fungi in their tracks. It’s also a great mildew preventative for textiles prone to moisture like sports gear or seasonal clothing that is stored for months at a time.

Here’s how to take advantage of clove’s antiseptic properties and create a DIY cleaning solution for use in the kitchen, bathroom, and any other surface of the home:

Supplies:

  • Dark glass spray bottle
  • 1 ¾ cup of water (distilled preferred)
  • ¼ cup of vinegar or alcohol
  • 30 drops of Clove Bud Essential Oil

Combine all ingredients and spray as needed.

Promising Research 

Clove essential oil is also at the forefront of exciting research exploring new ways to treat cancer and antibiotic-resistant infections. With its high antioxidant content and strong antiseptic properties, both qualities needed to combat tumors and infections, it’s an obvious choice among natural products for this line of research. According to multiple studies, clove oil shows early promise at fighting a variety of cancer cells. In vitro, it has stopped or disrupted the growth of thyroid, breast, cervical, and colon cancer cells, among others.

Research also suggests that clove may be particularly effective at inhibiting biofilm formation in bacteria, which are especially difficult to penetrate and treat with regular antibiotics. Likewise, infections in the lungs are often bacterial and require antibiotics to treat effectively. The diffusion of essential oil allows compounds to enter the lower respiratory system easily, and a 2018 study found that clove oil had some antibacterial effect. 

Although the research is still preliminary, and the conditions mentioned above should always be treated by a qualified physician, the potential for natural ingredients to provide long sought-after remedies to devastating diseases is exciting, to say the least. 

Contraindications

It comes up a lot on this blog, but it’s worth repeating: essential oils are highly concentrated and powerful plant compounds. This same quality that can make them such effective beneficial tools for physical and mental health can also pose risks when used improperly. In the case of clove essential oil, be particularly mindful of the following:

  • About 2% of the population is allergic to clove. Always do a patch test the first use, and look out for the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis.  Avoid diffusing in public to reduce the risk of an allergic reaction in others.
  • Clove should not be mixed with certain drugs, including anticoagulants, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Be sure to check for any drug interactions, and if worried, speak to your doctor before proceeding with clove oil usage.
  • Ingestion of clove oil can cause liver toxicity and should be avoided. For internal use, the dry spice is safer because it contains much lower amounts of eugenol. Clove oil should only be applied topically or used for aromatherapy. 

Putting it All Together

Clove’s rich history suggests that there is more than meets the modern eye, and indeed —from toothaches to the frontlines of mold and mildew, science has confirmed that clove is more than just a quaint holiday spice. If you’re ready to dive into the world of aromatherapy and experience what clove has to offer, try diffusing it with Cinnamon Bark, Orange Essence, or Nutmeg. Your nose and health will thank you.

Categories: Essential Oils

Winter Skin Care Guide

As colder temperatures descend on us for the fall and winter months—the dry air, freezing wind, and constant exposure to indoor heaters all take their toll on our skin. If you’re feeling dried out, flakey, and irritated, it’s not just… Read More

botanical drawings