Patchouli and hippies go together like bread and butter. Rumor has it that the reason this essential oil was so popular in the 60’s was because it could cover-up the smell of marijuana.
If you actually talk to people from that generation, you get a different reason.
The reason those dirty hippies loved the smell was because it was something new. Not their mother’s stale perfume or the Old Spice cologne their father was wearing. They wanted their own scent. Something natural. That was the real meaning of a patchouli princess hippie, not necessarily a pothead.
What is patchouli oil?
The patchouli plant (Pogostemon cablin) is a member of the mint family and believed to be native to the Philippines. Using steam distillation, the dried leaves and young twigs are used to make its heavily scented essential oil. This is used in perfumes, incense, natural insect repellent, and as part of alternative medicine, particularly in Southeast Asia.
Where patchouli comes from today is throughout the world. It can be cultivated in tropical climates, with Indonesia dominating the market – supplying over half of the U.S. imports for the essential oil (146.9 out of 270.9 tonnes per year). After that, the largest exporters to America are India, France, Spain, and Switzerland. (1)
To be clear though, not all of those countries are growing the crop, as places like France and Switzerland have to import the leaves to make the oil. Their climates and economies don’t lend themselves well to growing domestically.
What does it smell like?
Patchouli oil smells earthy, with a musky-sweet fragrance that’s very intense. The scent description really differs by person, as the aromatic profile is complex, which means different noses pick up different notes. Some would liken it to a moist forest floor and a few even say it smells like weed.
Then there are some who think it’s awful.
Why does patchouli oil smell so bad? If you think that, you probably were not exposed to a high quality batch. It’s the only essential oil that attains a better fragrance as it ages. Plus, it is an acquired taste to at least some degree, particularly for those who are expecting a flower or fruity fragrance when they take their first whiff.
Patchouli essential oil blends well with those lighter aromas, such as lavender, grapefruit, jasmine, ginger, and ylang ylang. While many prefer the pure scent, it also mixes well with those to create a yin and yang of strength and subtlety.
Mixing is what many $100+ perfumes and colognes and do. Dolce & Gabbana, Ramon Monegal, Nicolai, Le Labo, and Tom Ford all have bestsellers where it’s the headlining aroma, both for women and men.
Above you see a magazine ad for the popular scent from Perris Monte Carlo which bears the plant’s name. You can find it at higher-end department stores and for sale on Amazon.
Light vs. dark
According to most people, the best patchouli oil is the aged and dark version. It gets the color not from aging, but rather how it’s made – being distilled in traditional iron vessels. The difference with light patchouli oil is that stainless steel vessels are used, which leads to the finished product being iron-free and light brown in color. The aroma of light vs. dark is not exactly the same, but fairly close.
What makes the scent better is whether or not it’s aged. Like a fine wine or whiskey, a high quality aged patchouli oil may be 5 or even 10 years old. This creates an incredible depth which you won’t get with the fresh. How to age it yourself isn’t easy though, because sealed oak barrels are typically used.
Patchouli oil uses
- Beard oil
- Body wash enhancer
- Cancer research
- Candle scenting
- Chemical-free cleaning
- Hand soap enhancer
- Influenza research
- Insect repellent
- Flavoring agent
- Wound healing research
To be clear, no health benefits have been proven. Any purported health-related benefit you see on that list is what patchouli oil is used for in alternative medicine and/or what scientists are researching it for.
The history of patchouli leaves being used for fragrance dates back to at least 4,500 BC as part of Egyptian culture. As early as 420 AD, its use has been documented in Traditional Chinese Medicine for allegedly treating a wide range of diseases and conditions; common colds, coughing, stomach aches, diarrhea, fever, dermatitis, and as an appetite stimulant. In India,it’s most popular use was as an insect repellent, but it was not grown locally there until being introduced in 1834. (2)
The big surprise is that none of those historical medicinal uses involved the essential oil. The plant and leaf is described in ancient texts, but not the extraction of patchouli oil.
Though modern research does suggest that most potential benefits of this plant are probably due to what’s inside it. The patchouli essential oil profile consists of:
- patchouli alcohol (patchoulol)
Patchoulol is what’s called a sesquiterpene alcohol and it makes up to 38% of the composition, according to The Encyclopedia of Herbs.
It is these major compounds which are leading to fascinating findings in the lab…
The main active ingredient of the oil, patchouli alcohol, was tested on human lung cancer models by scientists in Shanghai. This included cells growing in a Petri dish-like setting, as well as using the cells to grow actual tumors in living mice, which are known as xenografts. The A549 cell line was used, which is one of the most popular for lung cancer research.
They reported it “may be a promising candidate for antitumor agent” because it was able to promote apoptosis – the programmed death of these cells.
In the tumors growing on mice, the more patchouli that was used, the greater the antiproliferative effect.
The scientists believe it did this by decreasing the expression of the EGFR signaling pathway, while activating the JNK pathways. In plain English, both of these are believed to be beneficial. (3)
The plant’s essential alcohol also was found to suppress cell growth in cultured human colorectal cancer (lines HCT116 and SW480), breast cancer (MCF-7), pancreas cancer (BxPC3), and prostate cancer (PC3). (4)
The Taiwanese have observed apoptosis and suppression in endometrial cells (uterus cancer) (5).
In India, an anti-cancer effect was also observed using tumor bearing mice. (6)
Skin antiaging benefits
When it comes to slowing down the clock, the one thing we have significant control over is photoaging of the skin from UV exposure.
Will blocking UV light prevent wrinkles and age spots entirely? No, but all you have to do is look at the women in certain Asian countries who use umbrellas in the sun – their skin looks fabulous until the very end!
Chinese researchers did a skin experiment with mice where they were exposed to UV radiation. Some were treated topically with the oil and others were not.
Patchouli oil on skin appeared to have the following benefits:
- reduced skin wrinkle formation
- prevented collagen fiber disruption
- alleviated the reduction in skin elasticity by 21.9%
- increased collagen growth by 26.3%
- decreased epidermal thickness by 32.6% (a sign of scar tissue)
They couldn’t say for sure what caused the effects but speculated the antioxidants may have something to do with it. (7)
Which brings us to the next benefit…
The ORAC value of essential oils can range from as little as 160 (sandalwood) to as high as 1,078,700 (clove).
The oil of patchouli measures at 49,400. That may sound low but it’s really right in the middle, as only 25% of essentials test above 100,000.
South Korean scientists wanted to see what affect the plant extract may have on inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). To try and find out, they ran two experiments:
- IBD was inflicted on the colon tissue of rats using an acidic solution. Afterward, one group of rats received the plant extract while the other did not (the control group).
- In a petri dish, living human colon epithelial cells were monitored with and without the plant extract.
“…the results of this study suggest that PCW [patchouli extract] suppressed colon inflammation via suppression of NF-κB-dependent expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines.”
In plain English, it had an anti-inflammatory effect on the colon. (8)
In 2017, another study done by a Chinese university observed the same benefits in mice that were given ulcerative colitis (UC). (9)
How about higher up the digestive tract? The Chinese have also analyzed its effect in the intestines. Based on an experiment with 80 rats, they claimed the extract…
“…could effectively protect the intestinal barrier function by way of maintaining the membrane fluidity of intestinal epithelial cells…”
So there is evidence of it having an anti-inflammatory effect in both the colon and intestines of rodents. (10)
Evaluating Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or other inflammatory diseases of the digestive tract have not been done in humans.
Some talk of using patchouli oil for arthritis and in Taiwan, they conducted a study related to that using mice. They used carrageenan to cause inflammation and then monitored what happened. When given the herbal treatment, it appeared to act as a COX-2 inhibitor and reduce inflammation in the tested paws. (11)
Several pieces of lab research published in recent years have suggested that the alcohol in patchouli oil might offer anti-viral activity against some forms of the flu viruses.
It had no effect on the H3N2 strain of the influenza A virus. However when the H1N1 (swine flu) was tested, at a very low concentration of 10 micrograms per milliliter, it showed a 99.8% inhibition. (12)
Most antiviral drugs are what you call neuraminidase (NA) inhibitors. In short, they block an enzyme in the virus that prevents it from reproducing.
Chinese researchers identified 6 compounds in the plant which appeared to be potent NA inhibitors when tested on the influenza A virus in the lab. One in particular that has been called out is crenatoside. (13) (14)
Candida yeast and fungal infections
The Aspergillus genus of fungi can cause hard to treat lung infections, as they tend to set up their breeding grounds in a previously scarred cavity of the lung.
At a concentration of 0.15% or greater, patchouli essential oil was found to inhibit the Aspergillus species which were tested in a lab. (15)
Candida yeast infections are also a tough fungus to fight, at least when they’re in the small intestines. Animals or humans haven’t been tested, but patchouli oil’s Candida efficacy has been demonstrated in multiple experiments. (16) (17) (18)
“Patchouli alcohol might be a potential antibacterial drug from natural sources and might be worthy to explore its mechanism and application in further study.”
That’s what Chinese doctors had to say about the number one ingredient of the essential oil. At a university lab, they tested the isolated alcohol against 127 different bacterial strains, including those which antibiotics don’t work for like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). They found it had antibacterial activity against all of the 127 strains!
They even tested the MRSA strains outside of Petri dishes, in mice given the infection. They said it “could protect mice entirely” when the dosage was 100 or 200 mg per kg of body weight. Even at a low dose of patchouli – 50 micrograms per milliliter – it was said to protect 80% of the infected mice. (19)
A similar study involved 83 different bacteria, including mice infected with MRSA and E. coli. Their conclusion claimed (20):
“Pogostone [patchouli] could be developed as a potential antibacterial agent for clinical therapy.”
South Korean scientists have observed the plant extract having “high activity” against Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus cereus, and Bacillus subtilis. (21)
How to use it
Remember all of the medical benefits being studied involve very preliminary research. None are proven.
Do NOT use this oil for the prevention or treatment of any disease.
So what is it good for?
The emotional benefits of patchouli oil aromatherapy are quite popular. Many people claim it helps relieve their anxiety, stress, and those occasional feelings of depression we all get. Though to be clear, using the oil for clinical depression has not been studied.
Can you put patchouli oil on skin?
Absolutely. Many perfumes and colognes contain it in a diluted form. If you want to use the pure essential oil on your face, neck, or body, then mixing it with a carrier oil will make spreading easier. Diluting patchouli is recommended to reduce the chance of irritation, but it is not considered to be an essential oil that burns.
It’s non-comedogenic, so you don’t need to worry about it clogging pores and causing pimples if used on your face. In fact, because it is antiphlogistic (soothes inflammation) there are some soaps for acne which use it as an ingredient.
Where to apply patchouli oil? On the face, try mixing two drops with peppermint oil and dabbing them on your forehead, cheeks, and neck, then spread evenly. Do this before applying your daily face cream. The oil may reduce the appearance of wrinkles according to Doterra. You can also apply it to your body in a similar fashion.
Is patchouli oil safe for cats and dogs?
Using it in a room diffuser or on your own skin shouldn’t be a problem for pets in your house. Applying it directly to their skin/fur or allowing them to ingest it is dangerous. Cats lack the glucuronyl transferase enzyme, which is needed for metabolizing certain compounds found inside numerous types of essential oils.
Dogs have the glucuronyl transferase enzyme, but its expression in their body is poorly understood. Being that they are much more susceptible to liver damage from acetaminophen (Tylenol) poisoning than humans, it would be safest to not give them any type of essential. (22)
Can you ingest patchouli oil?
All essential oils are made of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are different than the stable fats found in culinary oils. None are safe for consumption in high amounts and with many oils, you cannot ingest them whatsoever. With a food grade patchouli oil, you can drink or eat very tiny amounts if the manufacturer’s instructions permit doing so.
For those products which are marked as edible, the typical safe amount is only listed as one drop. For example, Doterra patchouli says “dilute one drop in 4 fl. oz. of liquid” for internal use.
When used as instructed, adverse reactions to patchouli oil are uncommon. Even though it’s not considered to be a burning essential oil, it may act as a skin irritant. Avoid the eyes as that will cause severe irritation and can be dangerous.
Side effects of patchouli oil are likely with ingestion if you take too much. For those products which list internal use as being okay, only a drop or two under the tongue (sublingual) or diluting them in water is typically the recommended amount listed.
Using too much or overdosing on patchouli essential oil can cause stomach aches, nausea, diarrhea, and possibly more serious complications. As with other EOs, it doesn’t take much to cause toxicity.
When smelling it, the most likely reaction you can encounter will be headache if the scent is too strong.
Patchouli oil during pregnancy and breastfeeding has never been studied and for that reason, its use should be avoided by women during those periods.
Almost all essential oils should be avoided by pregnant women for that same reason – no one knows if they’re safe and some evidence hints that compounds in certain types may induce early labor, cause dilation of blood vessels to the uterus, and other potentially harmful effects.
Where to buy (and which brands)
Does Walmart sell patchouli oil? No, at least not in their physical stores. Neither do CVS, Walgreens, and so forth. This is something you want to have a selection with when buying for a three reasons:
1. Going rancid
Can patchouli oil go bad? Yes. Even though the aged dark types may be up to 12 years old, like bourbon or Scotch, those have been sitting in airtight wood barrels which completely block light. Essentials degrade upon exposure to both air and light.
If unopened, the glass bottle or vial you buy will be airtight, but it still allows light to enter (even the amber bottles, but to a lesser degree). That’s why you don’t want a product what has sat on a dusty store shelf under fluorescent lights for who knows how long.
Since it contains a high amount of sesquiterpenes and sesquiterpenols, the shelf life of patchouli oil after opening can be as long as 4 to 8 years, if kept refrigerated. That’s according to Robert Tisserand, author of Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals.
2. Organic vs. non-organic
Most essentials for sale today are non-organic. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as you have to keep in mind many of these herbs and spices are grown by individual farmers in foreign countries where it isn’t economically feasible to get USDA organic certification.
Regardless, you may still want the option of natural and organic patchouli oil. Whole Foods sells the Aura Cacia brand, but they didn’t carry the organic version, which you see pictured above (photo taken at a local health market).
3. Therapeutic vs. internal
Therapeutic grade means it’s for use in aromatherapy and skin care. All of the following brands fall under that category:
Aveda – Only discusses skin, scalp, and hair uses.
Edens Garden – Doesn’t explicitly say no to ingestion, but they only list skin and hair care applications.
Gypsy Rose – Listed under aromatherapy oils.
Kiehl’s – Their roller-ball application is a wearable fragrance.
Nature’s Alchemy – Says “not for external use” and to “keep out of reach of children” on their website.
NOW Foods – Says “not for internal use” on bottle.
Spiritual Sky – This New Zealand brand talks of it helping to balance depression and mood swings, but only in the context of a fragrance. There’s not even a mention of skin usage.
Young Living – Says for external use only. Warns to “keep away from eyes and mucous membranes” which reiterates it not being for use in the mouth or under the tongue.
You may see customer reviews who do use some of these brands internally, but doing so is against the manufacturer’s instructions and is not recommended.
The only manufacturer we could find that lists some sort of internal usage was Doterra, whose website lists diluting 1 or 2 drops of it in 4 ounces of water. Due to the way that brand is distributed, it’s not even sold at normal retail stores. You can buy Doterra on Amazon.
Patchouli oil mixes well with many other essentials, including citrus (like grapefruit and orange), ginger, jasmine, and floral aromas such as lavender and ylang ylang. Try using these as diffuser blends.
Whether you’re using it in a diffuser or wearing it on your clothes and skin, buying a premade blend is often the best approach for aromatherapy, since the smell of patchouli is so strong. Try Healing Solutions stress relief blend.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.