In her book Perfume: A Century of Scents, Lizzie Ostrom beautifully captures what a whiff of patchouli evokes. “With its wine-dregs smell, patchouli, a close relation of mint, is suggestive of gnarly plant roots and worms wriggling around in dehydrating soil,” writes Ostrom.
The earthy musk of patchouli oil is also indelibly linked to the hippie culture of the 1960s. That strong olfactory association inspired Madonna to use patchouli to scent the packaging for her Like a Prayer album. “She wanted to create a flavour of the ‘60s and the church,” said a publicist from her record label. “She wanted to create a sensual feeling.”
Patchouli, which has a long history of use in Chinese, Ayurvedic, and Greek medicine, garnered a reputation in the 20th century as an aphrodisiac. Perhaps because of its earthiness, this viscous oil—often distilled from dry leaves—is frequently recommended as an aid for grounding yourself and strengthening your connection to nature.
Read on to learn more about patchouli essential oil, its history, and seven ways to use it to benefit your health.
What Is Patchouli?
Some sources report that the name “patchouli” comes from the ancient Tamil words “paccu” and “ilai,” which mean “green” and “leaf” respectively. Other sources say it comes from the Hindustan word “pacholi,” which means “to scent.
The patchouli plant, a large evergreen perennial, belongs to the Pogostemon genus and Lamiaceae family and is closely related to mint, lavender, and sage. Its rigid stems can grow quite tall (up to 2 or 3 feet) and are tipped with clusters of tiny, white flowers marked with violet. Native to Southeast Asia, the patchouli plant is now cultivated in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Mauritius, the Philippines, and Brazil and other parts of South America. There are several species of patchouli, but the cablin is considered to be superior, especially for therapeutic uses.
Patchouli essential oil can be extracted from the plant’s lightly fragrant leaves or from its flowers. When first extracted, the thick oil has a light yellow tint and a dark, musky, spicy, and slightly sweet aroma. Unlike most other essential oils, patchouli gets better with age. It turns a deeper amber hue and its smell becomes both smoother and richer.
A Brief History of Patchouli
The colorful story of patchouli dates back to at least the 1300s when it’s said that Pharaoh Tutankhamun—whom you may know as King Tut—mandated that 10 gallons of patchouli oil be buried with him in his tomb. And patchouli was a staple at feasts thrown by wealthy Romans who used it as an appetite stimulant. And in the days of the early European trade routes to Asia, patchouli had the same pound-for-pound value as gold.
In several branches of traditional Asian medicine, patchouli oil has been used to treat numerous skin problems, such as dermatitis, eczema, acne, dry chapped skin, dandruff, and an oily scalp. In Japan, India, China, and Malaysia, patchouli is also a traditional remedy for infections and fevers as well as a treatment for snake and insect bites. Experts note that patchouli functions as an active tissue regenerator, stimulating the growth of new cells and speeding healing time.
Patchouli’s reputation as an aphrodisiac likely originated in India, where it’s used in Tantric sexual practices.
The oil was also widely used in 19th century India as moth repellent. It was used so widely that the scent became a marker of genuine, handmade Indian cashmere shawls, which were status symbols in Victorian Britain. This spurred English and French manufacturers to import patchouli oil and apply it to their machine-made, imitation products so that buyers would be less able to distinguish the counterfeits from the real deals.
Patchouli Oils Benefits and Uses
Patchouli perfume is one of the oldest and most enduring uses for the oil. Though many profess to detest the smell of patchouli, it’s a base note in a number of iconic and popular offerings, such as Thierry Mugler’s Angel.
Patchouli oil also appears as a featured ingredient in a variety of skin and personal care products, soaps, laundry detergents, and candles. Its popularity may have to do with the benefits attributed to it by aromatherapy experts, which include relieving anxiety, stress, and depression.
Patchouli oil contains a number of potent compounds, including:
- Alpha patchoulene
- Beta patchoulene
- Alpha bulnesene
- Alpha guaiene
- Patchouli alcohol
Patchouli alcohol appears to be especially powerful. A study published in International Immunopharmacology noted that it has proven neuroprotective, anti-influenza, and anti-inflammatory activities. The researchers found that patchouli alcohol also has the ability to suppress cancer cell growth and induce apoptosis (cell death).
Here’s a bit more information about five major benefits associated with patchouli oil.
Benefit #1: Soothes Inflammation
In Chinese medicine, patchouli oil is used to treat numerous inflammation-related disorders. And scientific findings show that the oil can quell both systemic and acute inflammation.
A study published in Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine found that the patchouli alcohol compounds found in the oil have especially promising anti-inflammatory effects. Their findings, the researchers stated, not only validate the longstanding use of patchouli in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to treat conditions related to inflammation, but also suggest that Western medical practitioners could learn from that and use patchouli alcohol to treat inflammatory diseases.
A separate study published in the European Journal of Pharmacology looked at how another active compound found in patchouli oil—patchoulene—can reduce acute inflammation. The researchers identified a number of mechanisms by which patchouli oil lowers inflammation levels, which they also noted confirms the oil’s traditional uses.
Benefit #2: Treats Infections
Patchouli oil has formidable antibacterial and antifungal properties. If you have cuts or scrapes, it can help prevent infections from developing. It can also treat skin conditions like athlete’s foot.
Findings from the Indian Council of Medical Research showed that patchouli oil could inhibit the growth of 20 out of 22 bacterial strains and all 12 strains of fungus they pitted it against.
And when a team of Chinese scientists compared the effects of patchouli to five well-known antibiotics, they found that 26 of the compounds in patchouli oil have comparable antibacterial activity. Pogostone and patchouli alcohol in particular showed impressive antimicrobial activity. The team concluded that the oil as a whole has “strong antimicrobial effects.”
Benefit #3: Optimizes Digestion
Patchouli oil has traditionally been used as a tonic that enhances overall well-being by toning your stomach, liver, and intestines to improve your digestion.
A study done by South Korean researchers and published in the Archives of Pharmacal Research analyzed the effects of patchouli extract on inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). They conducted two separate experiments, one usings rats with induced IBD and one monitoring human colon cells in a petri dish. In both, patchouli extract significantly lowered inflammation levels.
A separate study carried out in 2017 by a team of scientists based in Guangzhou, China, found that patchouli can be successfully used to treat ulcerative colitis, a serious and currently incurable digestive disorder.
And earlier experiments done in Tianjin, China, indicate that one of the mechanisms responsible for patchouli’s beneficial effects on digestion is its ability to protect intestinal barrier function, specifically, by “maintaining the membrane fluidity of intestinal epithelial cells.”
Benefit #4: Boosts Libido
Patchouli oil has been a popular aphrodisiac for centuries. It’s said to stimulate the release of estrogen and testosterone, which ramps up your sex drive. As one study very sexily put it, patchouli can “improve sexual interest.”
Patchouli has also been shown to effectively treat symptoms related to impotence, erectile dysfunction, decreased sex drive, and sexual anxiety.
Experts in aromatherapy and essential oils say patchouli can help root you in your physical body and balance and stimulate your sacral chakra, which rules your sexual organs.
Benefit #5: Repels Insects
Whether applied topically to your skin or diffused into the air, patchouli oil repels mosquitoes, fleas, ants, lice, moths, flies, and other insects. As you may recall, that’s why Indian cashmere shawls in the 1800s smelled so strongly of patchouli—they were shipped with sachets of patchouli to keep them safe from nibbling insects.
Researchers from Louisiana State University tested patchouli against termites and found it to be both “toxic and repellent.” And for once, that’s a very good thing!
7 Patchouli Oil Uses
There are far too many wonderful uses for patchouli to list them all here, but we compiled seven to get you started.
- Reduce the appearance of wrinkles and cellulite. Patchouli oil can help skin appear smoother. Simply dilute in a light carrier oil, then apply.
- Soothe skin irritation. You can dab a small amount of patchouli oil directly on cuts, scrapes, burns, sores, and insect bites to quell painful inflammation and treat or prevent infections.
- Scent your bed linens. Patchouli oil can help set the mood while ensuring no pests (like bed bugs!) take up residence.
- Treat dandruff and scalp dryness. Patchouli oil can refresh skin cells on your scalp, clearing up problems like dandruff and dryness.
- Clear up oily skin. Thanks to its astringent properties, patchouli can gently yet effectively even out an oily complexion. Again, you’ll want to dilute it in a carrier oil before applying.
- Soak in a sensual bath. Add a few drops of patchouli to your bathwater to encourage relaxation and help you settle into your physical self.
- Prevent body odor. Patchouli’s strong aroma and antibacterial properties make it an effective alternative to chemical deodorants. Just dab directly onto your underarms.