Leishmania (Viannia) braziliensis is a protozoan that causes mucocutaneous leishmaniasis, which is an infectious disease that affects more than 12 million people worldwide. The available treatment is limited, has side-effects or is inefficient. In a search for alternative compounds of natural origin, we tested the microbicidal activity of Piper aduncum essential oil (PaEO) on this parasite. Our data showed that PaEO had an inhibitory effect on the growth of L. braziliensis promastigotes with an IC50/24 h=77·9 µg mL−1. The main constituent (nerolidol: 25·22%) presented a similar inhibitory effect (IC50/24 h = 74·3 µg mL−1). Ultrastructural observation of nerolidol-treated parasites by scanning and transmission electron microscopies revealed cell shrinkage and morphological alterations in the mitochondrion, nuclear chromatin and flagellar pocket. Flow cytometry analysis showed a reduction in the cell size, loss of mitochondrial membrane potential, phosphatidylserine exposure and DNA degradation, which when associated with the morphological changes indicated that nerolidol induced incidental cell death in the L. braziliensis promastigotes. The results presented here indicate that nerolidol derivatives are promising compounds for further evaluation against Leishmania parasites.