Researchers at the University of Manchester say they have identified three essential oils that killed MRSA and E. coli as well as many other bacteria and fungi within just two minutes of contact.
The oils, which have not been revealed in order to protect the university's rights to the findings, could be easily blended into soaps and shampoos for use by hospital staff to stop the spread of the deadly bacteria.
Peter Warn from the university's Faculty of Medicine said: "We believe that our discovery could revolutionise the fight to combat MRSA and other 'super bugs'."
The UK's National Audit Office estimates that infections such as MRSA kill 5,000 people each year and hospital-acquired infections cost the NHS around £1 billion a year.
Doctors have become increasingly alarmed over recent months by the emergence in UK hospitals of new generations of resistant strains of MRSA. The bacteria has also become endemic in many hospitals, especially in London and the south-east of England.
Essential oils are chemical compounds found within aromatic plants, which the plants use to fight off infections. Researchers tested 40 essential oils against ten of the most deadly bacteria and fungi. Two of these oils killed MRSA and E. coli almost instantly, while a third was shown to act over a longer period of time.
Scientists at the University of Sydney previously reported in 2002 that eucalyptus and tea-tree oils were surprisingly effective at treating MRSA when applied to the skin of infected wounds.
Jacqui Stringer, clinical lead of Complementary Therapies at the Christie Hospital, who instigated the research said: "The use of plants in medicine is nothing new but some people regard the use of essential oils as unconventional. Our research shows a very practical application which could be of enormous benefit."
"The reason essential oils are so effective is because they are made up of a complex mixture of chemical compounds which the MRSA and other super bug bacteria finds difficult to resist."
Current treatments are made of single compounds that MRSA quickly becomes resistant to, she added, and reduces the success rate to only 50 per cent.
Essential oils also have the advantage of being well tolerated and easily administered.
"While a wide range of products currently exist to help prevent the spread of MRSA these are often unpleasant for patients as their application can cause skin irritation. MRSA is often carried inside the nose which means that patients often have to insert treatments up their nostrils, whereas these essential oils can simply be inhaled to prevent the patient being at risk," added Stringer.
The Manchester researchers are now looking for funding to develop their work and carry out a clinical trial but they are having problems sourcing the required £30,000.
"Essential oils cannot be patented as they are naturally occurring, so few drug companies are interested in our work as they do not see it as commercially viable," said Warn.
"Obviously, we find this very frustrating as we believe our findings could help to stamp out MRSA and save lives."
The garlic compound allicin has also been shown to fight MRSA and since the first studies demonstrating this effect, the product has been in strong demand.