What Is a Natural Antibacterial? 11 Examples

A natural antibacterial agent has bacteria-killing or impairing properties. In other words, it isn't a human-engineered antibiotic, for example, or a sanitization product, both of which may lead to the creation of dangerous super-microbes (more on that later).

You may know some natural antibacterial agents as food (think: honey, coconut oil, and garlic). But their applications don't stop there. Beyond antibacterial food, some metals have antibacterial properties, like silver and copper.

Natural antibacterial agents have more applications than ever and may function as a healthy -- and effective -- way to keep our homes clean and bodies healthy. Here's what you need to know about them in 2020.

What Does Antibacterial Mean?

Antibacterial refers to things that slow the growth of or kill bacteria. By contrast, antimicrobial means that something kills or slows microorganism growth. Antimicrobial agents work on bacteria and viruses, mold, and fungi, whereas antibacterial only minimizes the spread of bacteria.

An antibiotic often refers to medicine with antibacterial products used to kill microorganisms within the body. Penicillin is a common type of antibiotic. An antiseptic is used on surfaces to stop the spread of bacteria. It is not used within the body.

What Is a Natural Antibacterial?

Many plants, foods, and metals have naturally-occurring germ-killing properties. For thousands of years, ancient civilizations used natural antibacterial foods, such as garlic and honey, to help prevent illnesses and restore overall health.

Today, the dangers of antibacterial resistance make natural alternatives more critical than ever. Additionally, according to NHS research, antibiotics may cause digestive issues in 10% of those who receive them. They kill "good bacteria" that occurs naturally in the human body and "bad bacteria" that causes illness.

11 Natural Antibacterial Agents

Here are a few of the most commonly-used natural germ-killing agents. Please bear in mind that research regarding these foods and materials is ongoing but promising in many cases. The following was written for informational purposes and is not medical advice.

  1. Honey
  2. Coconut Oil
  3. Garlic
  4. Ginger
  5. Clove
  6. Oregano
  7. Echinacea
  8. Goldenseal
  9. Vinegar
  10. Silver
  11. Copper

Is Honey Antibacterial?

There's a reason why people suffering from colds should take honey in their tea: people have been using honey for its germ-killing properties for much of human history.

  • One study suggests that manuka honey stops the growth of 60 types of bacteria.
  • Research postulates that topically-applied honey may help heal surgical wounds thanks to its antibacterial properties. These result from the natural production of hydrogen peroxide, which is a common natural disinfectant.
  • Why is honey antibacterial? In addition to its hydrogen peroxide production and viscosity--it may coat and protect a wound--honey has a low pH level, which may dehydrate bacteria, and a high sugar content, which may impede their growth.
  • One study demonstrated that honey might kill E. coli in 15 minutes thanks to high hydrogen peroxide production.

Technically, honey is an antimicrobial as it may slow or stop the spread of more than just bacteria.

Is Coconut Oil a Natural Antibacterial?

Coconut oil may also have antibacterial properties, specifically in the realm of dental hygiene and cavity reduction. However, coconut oil may also act against acne-causing bacteria, yeast infections, and fungi.

  • In one study, participants rinsed their mouths with coconut oil for 2-3 minutes after brushing their teeth. The study found that coconut oil was as effective as chlorhexidine, the antiseptic used in mouth wash, at reducing the risk of cavity-causing bacteria.
  • Other research has reached similar conclusions. Another study suggests that the fatty acids in coconut oil disrupt viral, bacterial, and fungal membranes, which leads to their death.
  • Research on coconut as a natural antibacterial agent is expanding to non-dental applications. Another study suggests that lauric acid, which occurs naturally in coconut oil, may kill off acne-causing bacteria.
  • Coconut oil is more than antibacterial: one study's results propound that it may inhibit fungi growth.
  • Additional research indicates that coconut oil may help kill yeast infection-causing bacteria in humans.

Garlic as an Antibacterial

Allium sativum, otherwise known as garlic, is one of the world's best-known natural antibacterials agents. Not only has it been used historically to kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi, but garlic may also have immune and cardiovascular benefits.

  • In one review, garlic demonstrated antibacterial effects against drug-resistant E. coli as well as anti-fungal, anti-parasitic, and antimicrobial properties.
  • Another study tested fresh garlic juice against microorganisms found at a hospital. It suggests that fresh garlic juice may be an effective germ-killer for common pathogens found in medical settings. 

Ginger's Health Benefits

In addition to being an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, ginger also has antimicrobial health properties. In other words, ginger in food may reduce the presence of harmful microorganisms, according to Food Reviews International. Today, there is little research on ginger as natural antibacterial food.

Ginger is well-known as a treatment for nausea, as shown by 109 randomized controlled clinical trials. This extends to nausea treatment related to: 

  1. Chemotherapy
  2. Women experiencing morning sickness. Note: some medical sources suggest that women who are close to labor or those who have miscarried should avoid ginger.

Beyond reducing nausea and its potential as a natural antibacterial agent, ginger may assist with weight loss. One review observed that ginger supplements reduced the waist-hip ratio and body weight in overweight and obese participants. 

Is Vinegar a Natural Antibacterial?

Vinegar may help reduce:

  • Weight gain
  • high blood sugar
  • cholesterol
  • acne
  • warts
  • lice
  • fungus
  • a variety of bacteria and viruses

Vinegar a well-known as a natural disinfectant thanks to its researched ability to reduce the spread of bacteria and viruses.

In addition to being a natural antibacterial agent, vinegar may also promote weight loss, lower blood sugar levels, reduce cholesterol, and diminish acne. It may also be used for cleaning warts, lice, and fungus thanks to its natural acidity.

Benefits of Clove

Clove is a cooking spice commonly used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. In addition to possessing a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, clove is known for its natural antibacterial properties.

  • Clove may reduce bacteria commonly found in food, including E.coli, listeria, and Salmonella as well as Staphylococcusm according to research put forth in the Journal of Food Science.
  • Research suggests that clove has potential as a treatment for the inflammation associated with acne.
  • Clove oil may also be used as a mouthwash, according to The German Commission's Guide to Herbal Medicines.
  • In almost all applications, clove should be used topically or as a wash, not swallowed whole. Due to its natural antibacterial effects, clove may reduce helpful bacteria found in the intestines that are critical to the gut biome. 

Is Oregano an Antibacterial Food?

Oregano is an herb often used in cooking and as an aromatic oil. It contains two essential oils--thymol and carvacrol--known for their germ-killing properties.

  • One study found that the essential oils found in oregano controlled bacteria growth in dairy and meat.
  • An article published in Frontiers in Microbiology uncovered that oregano showed natural antibacterial effects against several microbes that displayed resistance to conventional treatments. 
  • Oregano's essential oils may also produce anti-inflammatory effects helpful in the treatment of asthma and arthritis, according to researchers.
  • The herb may also affect how the body metabolizes carbohydrates.