If you’ve ever used a topical balm to soothe aches and pains, you’ve likely inhaled the sharp, faintly sweet scent of eucalyptus. The plant, which many believe possesses healing qualities, has flowered for more than 50 million-years, and as anyone with a branch in their bathroom can attest, it’s as therapeutic as ever.
Native to Australia, eucalyptus was first discovered to have medicinal properties by Aboriginal peoples. By bruising the plant’s leaves and applying them directly to ailing parts of the body, they realized it had cooling and anti-inflammatory value. Australians would later colloquially refer to the plant as “fever tree,” because of how it could soothe fevers.
When European botanists eventually caught on to the allure of the plant in the late 18th century, they began to call the trees “eucalyptus,” the Greek root “eu” meaning “well” and “kalypto” meaning “to cover,” because of how its flowers are covered by hard, protective structures. A name that almost makes too much sense given how eucalyptus was once used to cover wounds and help them heal.
“Eucalyptus has potent antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties and has been used in ancient medicine for hundreds of years,” explains board-certified dermatologist Adriana Lombardi. “The cineole—which is extracted from the eucalyptus leaf—has the ability to block inflammatory pathways and many studies have shown that it also prevents the growth of and kills bacteria.”
Once the leaves of the eucalyptus plant are steamed, a potent essential oil is extracted and can treat an array of human ailments. When applied topically, the oil improves skin and hair from the inside out. When inhaled, it can aid in respiratory issues like coughs and colds. That branch hung from the shower is more than ornament; hot water creates steam that releases a small amount of eucalyptus oil into the air you breathe.
“Eucalyptus can also be used to treat burns, minor wounds, and scrapes,” explains Lombardi. Thanks to its antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties, it may save you a trip to the pharmacy. She cites studies that show the plant’s essential oil effectively kills bad bacteria, making it a “natural antibiotic” to treat skin.
“Numerous studies have shown that eucalyptus has the ability to decrease many types of inflammation and also decreases the pain associated with inflammation and swelling,” Lombardi added. This response also benefits those with eczema, an inflammatory skin condition, when applied topically. “Eucalyptus essential oil can help to decrease the inflammation that occurs during this process and in turn improve eczema.”
Increasingly, consumers have grown cautious of chemical-based skin care products, in line with a broader shift towards all-natural materials. Whether attributed to what some scientists describe as “chemophobia”—an irrational fear of generally safe chemical materials—or a concern about the environment, harnessing the power of nature is a growing concern. In South Korea, the government made a commitment to ban all animal testing for cosmetics this year, making for a surge in Korean skincare brands with a direct focus on natural materials.
Eucalyptus is a plant with 300 years of efficacy to its name, so it makes sense that its become an ingredient of choice for the natural skincare set. When used as a natural treatment and non-toxic decor, you can count on the minty scent of eucalyptus to get that much sweeter.
Emily Rekstis is a writer based in New York.