How Palo Santo Went From Ancient Spirit Cleanser To Buzzy Wellness and Beauty Trend

"It's called 'saint' for a reason."
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Palo santo. Photo: Urban Outfitters

Palo santo. Photo: Urban Outfitters

After spending the early aughts being bombarded by fruity florals and vanilla-based gourmands (side-eyeing you, Jessica Simpson Dessert Treats), it appears as though the fragrance scales have finally tipped — consumers and brands are craving something with a bit more intrigue. One overwhelming indicator of this shift? The fashion world's sudden obsession with palo santo wood.

Palo santo — a tree native to the Amazon — translates to mean "holy wood" or "saint wood." According to Fabian Lliguin, co-founder of hair-care line Rahua and founder of the nonprofit Amazon conservation organization Ecoagents, palo santo has been a part of South American culture for thousands of years. He singles out an area called Manta on the Pacific coast of Ecuador as the most notable in what is a very rich history of this sacred wood. "The Manta tribe [of indigenous peoples] have a strong belief in it being a very spiritual thing — it has a lot of mystic properties," he explains.

Much like burning sage, lighting a stick of palo santo is believed to be a way to cleanse bad energies. David Apel, the vice president and senior perfumer at Symrise, says this is more than just folklore. "Palo santo is the opposite of what you would expect smoke to be," he says. "It's almost inviting — it has a lot of clarity to its notes, which is why I believe it was so important in these cultures as a sort of purifying, focusing scent."

That unexpectedness is perhaps why many find it so enticing. "I was really mesmerized by it — it's this otherworldly scent," says Kerrilynn Pamer, co-founder of CAP Beauty boutique in New York City, recalling the first time she smelled the wood. She credits yoga studios for introducing it to larger audiences and contributing to the current demand for palo santo sticks, which CAP sells in pretty bundles that they can't seem to keep in stock. "We didn't do a huge push or promotion of it. It kind of sells itself. Once you burn it, people just like it and it drops into their little shopping baskets." Trendy New York City spa/café Chillhouse — purveyor of self-care cool, positioned squarely at the intersection of wellness and chicness — also sells its own version of palo santo at the front of its shop.

Jeff Madalena, co-founder of New York City fashion boutique Oak and co-creator (along with partner Jason Gnewikow) of the new fragrance line Carlen — which spotlights palo santo in its Aztec Noir parfum — explains, "Even though it's ancient, it does feel somewhat fresh. People are drawn to it." He adds sheepishly, "I feel ironic calling something ancient new."

But in the world of fine fragrance, that's exactly what it is… kind of. "It's been on everyone's radar — we first reproduced the scent of the oil almost 10 years ago," notes Apel. The shift, he says, is toward smelling like palo santo, rather than just using the wood as a background note. "It's having a moment — or rather the beginning of a moment," he confirms.

The appeal of the oil distilled from palo santo, says Apel, is that it's "very bright, clean and fresh and at the same time there's a delicious tastiness to it — kind of a coconut inflection. It almost smells tropical. And behind all that is a milky, kind of funky note." He continues, "It has a lot of brightness and yet at the same time a depth of character and sensuality so it plays well in both lighter scents and warmer, richer ones." Apel says he personally prefers incorporating it into something more fresh as a "different way to bring sensuality to a light note."

That clarity is what informed Gnewikow and Madalena when creating Aztec Noir. "What excited us was to make a fragrance built around a single material but that had these two very distinct sides," Gnewikow explains. The pair, who created the scent themselves, blended it with grapefruit to unlock that minty and citrus side of the wood, and then used amber, warm woods, and incense to play up the smokiness of the burning sticks.

The actual harvesting of the oil also speaks to the singularity of the ingredient. Lliguin saw firsthand from his visits with the Manta people what goes into the tribe’s ancient process. "Once a palo santo tree dies, it must be left in the forest for 10 years in order to get the most effective oil," he says. The Manta people, he claims, can tell the age of a tree just by looking at the bark so they know the proper time to harvest in order to get the most fragrant wood.

Once the wood has been gathered, it is then broken down and placed in water that has been boiled using hot stones found in the mud at the base of active volcanoes, says Lliguin. The boiling process is slow but once it gets to the right temperature, the oil is released from the wood and can be scooped up out of the water.

Because of this lengthy, labor intensive process, most of the big fragrance houses understandably rely on scientific analysis and reproduction of the oil's scent — combined with natural products — to create the note you find in the handful of mainstream fragrances that contain it. "There is no real large-scale, commercially available palo santo oil," Apel explains, making it both difficult and unsustainable to obtain. "The distillation and harvesting of it has a lot of potential repercussions for the environment," she cautions.

So, what's next for this newly rediscovered ingredient? More prominence in scents, for one. "It has such an appealing character to it — it needs very little dressing up," says Apel. He predicts more niche brands will continue to introduce palo santo focused products, both in fine fragrance and personal care. The home fragrance category is, ironically, just starting to roll out with products for those who prefer their palo santo in a more traditional format. Madalena and Gnewikow already have scented beads and candles in the works for late 2017. And Lliguin notes that palo santo has incredible anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties — he included it in his core line of hair products as a natural preservation system. The leaves of the tree, he adds, have a host of health benefits for the immune system, gut, and skin — the Manta create a tea from it as a cure for a host of ailments. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before palo santo tea sits on the shelf alongside chamomile at Whole Foods.

As its popularity grows and palo santo takes the beauty world by storm, Lliguin stresses the importance of not regarding this as a "trendy" ingredient — it has cultural and spiritual significance to many. "It's something to respect," he says emphatically. "It's called 'saint' for a reason."

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