Burning dried wood from the “mystical” palo santo tree, and collecting its concentrated oils, have been widely used in folk medicines and by shamans (“medicine men”) for centuries. Reason being: The palo santo tree has long been thought to have special spiritual qualities.
For ritual participants who observe the practice and take in palo santo’s aroma, it’s said to “clear misfortune, negative thought prints, and evil spirits.”
This is one reason palo santo essential oil is considered a powerful supporter of mental and emotional clarity. Aside from its mental health applications, more recently studies have shown that it has promising benefits when it comes to raising immunity and fighting illnesses.
Palo santo oil has been found to contains cancer-fighting compounds that lower oxidative stress and protect cells. Its protective phytochemicals seem capable of helping to stop disease formation within the digestive, endocrine, cardiovascular and nervous systems.
What Is Palo Santo?
Palo santo (Bursera graveolens), also known as “holy wood” or “wood of the saints,” describes a group of trees that produce a powerful essential oil known for stimulating the immune system and fighting inflammation.
Where does palo santo grow? Over 40 different types of palo santo trees are grown worldwide, mostly throughout Central and South America. The species is native to the tropical dry forests of Ecuador, Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula in Peru.
The palo santo tree belongs to the same botanical family (Burseraceae) as frankincense and myrrh trees, which also produce beneficial antioxidant-rich oils that are used around the world. The valuable fruit of the B. graveolens tree is a small black seed covered by a red pulp that’s contained in a green capsule. The two halves of the capsule fall off when the fruit is ripe, leaving behind the fruit that’s rich in lipids (fats), which are then concentrated and used therapeutically.
What are the benefits of palo santo? It’s primarily used in essential oil form or burned similarly to other types of incense. The wood has historically been utilized in spiritual ceremonies, as well as in aromatherapy, and is still burned in Catholic churches today.
When smoked as incense, this is called “smudging.” By lighting shavings of palo santo wood, the smell keeps not only bugs but also spiritual “bad energy” away, according to mystics. For example, in Peru, a shaman will light Bursera graveolens sticks, and the rising smoke is said to enter the “energy field” surrounding the site.
9 Palo Santo Uses and Benefits
Whether in incense or essential oil form, research suggests that palo santo benefits include:
1. Concentrated Source of Antioxidants
As a rich supply of antioxidants and phytochemicals called terpenes, palo santo oil is effective for combatting free radical damage (also called oxidative stress), relieving stomach aches, fighting stress, reducing pains due to arthritis and healing many other conditions.
Particularly, it’s been gaining attention for being a natural cancer treatment for inflammatory diseases.
An analysis of steam-distilled palo santo essential oil showed that the major active constituents include: limonene (89.33 percent), α-terpineol (11 percent), menthofuran (6.6 percent) and carvone (2 percent). Other beneficial compounds in smaller quantities include germacrene D, muurolene and pulegone.
2. Detoxifier and Immune Enhancer
Palo santo helps support the immune system and regulates inflammatory responses, such as those triggered by a poor diet, pollution, stress and illness.
Limonene, the main active ingredient in palo santo, is a bioactive component found in high concentrations in certain plants, including citrus peels, that has well-researched anticancer and anti-inflammatory effects. In preclinical studies of mammary carcinogenesis and inflammation-related diseases, supplementing with limonene helps to fight inflammation, lower cytokines and protects the epithelial barrier of cells.
In 2004, researchers from the University of Shizuoka School of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Japan discovered several other key phytochemicals in palo santo oil that are capable of fighting cancerous cell mutation. These compounds showed remarkable inhibitory activity against human cancer and ﬁbrosarcoma cells.
Researchers observed biological activities including antineoplastic, antitumor, antiviral and anti-inflammatory actions against cell mutations and tumor growth. Triterpene lupeol compounds found in palo santo especially showed strong activity against lung, breast and colon cancer cells.
3. De-Stressor and Relaxant
Considered an oil that’s grounding and centering, both palo santo and frankincense oils are used for emotional and spiritual support since they work like natural anxiety remedies.
Once inhaled, palo santo travels directly through the olfactory system (which controls our sense of smell) of the brain, where it helps turn on the body’s relaxation responses and reduces panic, anxiety and insomnia.
To try smudging with palo santo, which is intended to improve the energy in your environment, you can burn a small amount of the wood in your home.
Another option is apply several drops mixed with a carrier oil (such as coconut or jojoba oil) to your head, neck, chest or spine to help you unwind and fall asleep more easily. You can also combine palo santo with lavender oil, bergamot oil or frankincense oil for additional relaxation benefits.
4. Headache Treatment
Known to combat migraines and even stress-related headaches or bad moods, palo santo helps to lower inflammation and increase blood flow that can help turn off perceived pain.
For a natural headache remedy and instant relief, dilute a few drops in water and dissolve the vapors with a diffuser whenever a headache strikes. Or try rubbing some palo santo mixed with coconut oil onto your temples and neck.
5. Cold or Flu Treatment
Palo santo is known to fight infections and viruses that can leave you with a cold or the flu. By improving blood circulation and recharging your energy levels, it can help you feel better faster and stop severity of feelings of dizziness, congestion and nausea.
Apply a few drops on the chest at heart level or add some to your shower or bath to beat a cold or flu.
6. Joint and Muscle Pain Reducer
As a great way to naturally lower pain from arthritis, injuries, chronic neck or back pain, and sore muscles, apply several drops with a carrier oil three times a day directly on the point of pain.
For a natural remedy for muscle, bone and joint pain, try massaging the oil mixture into the skin until the oil is absorbed or sitting in a soaking bath with palo santo and Epsom salts.
7. Bug/Mosquito Repellent
Historically, palo santo wood chips or sticks have been used to make a natural mosquito repellent (like citronella oil) because it possesses aromatic resins and volatile oils. If you can find wood chips, sticks or cones, burn one or two in an incense burner for about 20 or 25 minutes.
You can also use the essential oil in the same way or combine it with water and spray it directly onto your skin or clothes.
8. Allergy Reducer
Because it lowers inflammation and the body’s response to histamines, palo santo has benefits for fighting seasonal allergy symptoms, digestive issues and asthma-related symptoms.
Try taking it as a dietary supplement for natural allergy relief (only recommended when using a therapeutic-grade oil) or inhale it from the bottle several times daily.
9. Household Cleaner
Similar to clary sage and cedarwood essential oils, palo santo has antibacterial properties and can be used as a natural cleansing agent. It helps reduce odors, microbes and and viruses within your home.
Palo santo wood chip incense or essential oil can also be used to clean the air and surfaces in your home and prevent illnesses, contamination or even “bad energy.” Purify your kitchen, bathroom or appliances by diffusing the oil or running it through your household appliances.
Recipes, Uses, Plus How To Buy
The fruit from the palo santo tree emits an odor similar to fennel (anise) that’s slightly sweet, which is one reason why people like to diffuse the smell throughout their homes or use it in natural cleansing products.
Palo santo is also related to the citrus family and has a somewhat similar sweet note of “clean” smelling pine, mint and lemon. Because they’re related and have similar emotionally stabilizing benefits, you can use palo santo as a substitute for more-popular frankincense oil or myrrh oil.
Is palo santo better than sage? Native Americans used both as sacred plants for smudging (burning). One is not necessarily better, as they have similar uses including enhancing “spiritual purifying and energy cleansing.”
Here are some ways to get started using palo santo oil:
Try using several drops of pure palo santo oil as a detoxification agent by combining it with hot water (not boiling) and drinking it as an herbal tea. It’s great for calming the nervous system and to recover faster from illness, chronic fatigue syndrome or emotional pain.
- Aromatically: You can use palo santo essential oil for aromatherapy by diffusing it within your home using a diffuser, or you can inhale it directly from the bottle.
- How to burn palo santo: If you’d prefer to try using dried palo santo wood chips/sticks instead of oil, use a candle, match or lighter to ignite your sticks/cones and hold them at about a 45-degree angle pointing the tip down toward the flame. Allow it to burn for about 30 seconds to one minute, and then blow it out or add it to a non-flammable metal, glass or clay bowl to slowly diffuse throughout your home.
- Topically: The oil should be diluted with a carrier oil like coconut oil in a 1:1 ratio before applying it directly to your skin. When used as an ingredient in cosmetics, the INCI name “Bursera graveolens wood oil” should be listed within the ingredient label. Note that some people react to citrus, frankincense and palo santo oils by experiencing skin irritation, so perform a patch test first to be safe and use caution when it comes to applying the oil to babies, children and pets.
- Internally: Palo santo is recognized by the FDA as safe to consume (21CFR182.20), but this is ONLY recommend for very high-quality oil brands. Look for an oil that is 100 percent pure therapeutic oil. You can add a drop to water or take it as a dietary supplement by mixing with honey or into a smoothie.
Palo santo oil mixes well with other oils, including: black pepper, cedarwood, clary sage, cypress, douglas fir, frankincense, lemon balm, myrrh, rose, vetiver and sandalwood essential oils.
Try using some in various homemade soap, lotion, incense and cleansing products, especially in any recipe that calls for frankincense, cedarwood, myrrh or lemon essential oil.
- Try our Homemade Frankincense and Myrrh Body Lotion
- Add palo santo oil to this Homemade Frankincense Soap Recipe
- Create a natural bug spray by making this Homemade Bug Spray Recipe
What if it won’t stay lit?
You don’t need to burn the wood for very long to create a decent amount of smoke. Try to cut the top inch or so down from the tip then light it, then blow it out which produces a lot of smoke.
Once you’ve successfully lit the stick, waft it around to distribute smoke through the room. Keep the windows closed for a stronger effect, or open if you prefer a less intense smell.
Here’s how to tell if it’s real:
Some reports show that it might be hard to obtain real palo santo essential oil, so you’ll want to buy from a reputable brand and do your research first. In some countries, such as Ecuador, it’s against the law to remove or cut down these trees because they’re protected due to palo santo deforestation.
Even though the oil can be obtained from fallen limbs or even dead trees, even this must permitted through the government in most countries, so therefore manufacturing is limited. The palo santo tree is currently endangered and is on a watch-list, according to the United Plant Savers Medicinal Plant Conservation.
Be suspicious of companies selling oil (sometimes just called “holy wood oil”) for low prices over the internet today. You’ll want to check the genus species name (Bursera graveolens) so you know you’re getting the real thing.
Organic, 100 percent pure oils offer the most benefits and are the only kinds recommended for internal use to reduce inflammation.
Risks and Side Effects
Although it’s well-tolerated, applying palo santo essential oil to a small patch of your skin to perform a test is a good idea before using it on larger or more sensitive parts of the body.
Test the oil on your skin somewhere that is less sensitive, such as your forearm or foot, to make sure you don’t have any allergic reaction or other side effects.
As with all essential oils, never use them undiluted on your skin without a carrier oil, and keep them away from your eyes, inside your nose and mucus membranes, children and pets.
- What is palo santo? It’s a group of trees with the species name Bursera graveolens, also known as “holy wood,” that produce a powerful essential oil known for stimulating the immune system and fighting inflammation.
- Historically, and still today, its uses have included naturally preventing/treating allergies, colds and flu, bug bites, headaches, muscle pains and more.
- Due to the trees rich supply of antioxidants and phytochemicals, benefits of the oil include: fighting cancer, protecting against infections, relieving inflammation and muscular pains, and reducing anxiety by supporting a healthy nervous system.
- Wood and sticks from the Bursera graveolens tree are also burned for incense and have a long history of use in spiritual rituals.