Patchouli oil, with its recognizable musky, sweet, spicy aroma, is used widely as a base note and fixative ingredient in modern perfume and skincare products. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that some of the most popular products today contain patchouli. But it's about more than a good scent—in fact, patchouli comes with a number of benefits for the skin, according to experts.
Meet the Expert
Keep reading for more about where patchouli comes from, what it smells like, and all the things it can do for your skin.
What Is Patchouli Oil?
"Patchouli is an aromatic flowering plant which belongs to the mint family," says Spongelle CEO Elaine Binder. "It is so versatile that it is used in perfumes, candles, diffusers, and more."
As fragrance expert Clayton Ilolahia explains, "Patchouli oil is distilled from the leaves of the Pogostemon cablin plant, which originated in the Philippines. Patchouli has a place in the culture of many South Asian countries. The scent was a symbol of the British elite when cashmere shawls became fashionable in London’s Victorian Era. The luxurious shawls were imported from India and patchouli leaves were layered between the textiles to ward off moths as it is a natural insect repellent."
Today, patchouli is largely grown and harvested for perfumery in Indonesia. Ilolahianotes that it is appears in luxurious perfumes like Chanel’s Coromandel and Frédéric Malle’s Portrait of a Lady.
The patchouli plant is native to tropical Southeast Asian countries but is widely cultivated all over the tropics and subtropics including various Indonesian Islands, India, the Philippines, Malaysia, China, and South America. The oil is extracted by steam distillation from the dried leaves of the patchouli plant (Pogostemon cablin), an upright, bushy, evergreen perennial herb native to Southeast Asia.
The Benefits of Patchouli Oil
- Therapeutic: Patchouli is most often used in aromatherapy, and for good reason. One study found that, when inhaled by emergency room nurses, patchouli significantly lowered stress levels and raised levels of compassion "significantly higher."
- Antiseptic: According to scientists, patchouli has potent antiseptic qualities, meaning it is cleansing and can help remove dirt and grime from the skin.
- Anti-inflammatory: Patchouli is a good ingredient to consider for acne as it is non-comedogenic and won’t leave the skin feeling greasy but will deeply cleanse the skin of impurities. It can also help with a variety of skin conditions, such as eczema, dermatitis, acne, or dry skin.
- Astringent: Patchouli has strong antimicrobial effects, meaning it kills bacteria. On the plus side, it won't strip the skin even as it kills the bad stuff.
What Does Patchouli Smell Like?
Patchouli oil has a strong, slightly sweet, intoxicating scent. It's described as having a dark, musky-earthy aroma profile, reminiscent of wet soil. "Patchouli flowers have a strong sweet scent with notes of spicy and musky, which is why women and men love to use it in their daily routine," says Binder.
Due to its intense scent, even when diluted, a little patchouli oil goes a long way. It is most commonly used as a base note in perfumes and is also prized as an excellent fixative (an ingredient that extends the life of other perfume ingredients). Patchouli oil mixes well with many other essential oils, including vetiver, sandalwood, frankincense, bergamot, cedarwood, myrrh, jasmine, rose, and citrus oils. It is also highly complementary to vanilla and other sweet scents.
How to Use Patchouli Oil
Traditionally, patchouli has been used often as a medicinal ingredient to treat skin inflammations and scars, headaches, colic, muscle spasms, bacterial, and viral infections, anxiety, and depression. The Chinese, Japanese, and Arabs believe it to possess aphrodisiac properties. If using it on skin, it's best to dilute with a carrier oil, as patchouli can be potent on its own.
Patchouli is also frequently used as an aromatherapy product, placed in a diffuser to reap the most benefits. Another favorite way to use patchouli is in candle form. We've heard great things about Paddywax's tobacco and patchouli candles ($19). You can also use patchouli oil mixed with other essential oils to create your own moisturizers, massage oils, and more. It's particularly nice when paired with jasmine.
Alternately, it can be used as a standard fragrance—in which case it should be stored properly, says Binder. "Consider an investment of a small atomiser for your bag and decant when you want to top up. Direct sunlight and humidity (in the bathroom) can change your fragrance very quickly and not for the better. Fragrances are best kept in cool dark places. Mine never leave their boxes as to avert oxidation from sunlight for a longer life."
Possible Side Effects
As Binder explains, patchouli is frequently used in both cosmetics and fragrance. She notes that it can affect those with allergies, but otherwise appears safe for use. "As with any fragrances or essential oils, one needs to exercise caution and understand the side effect such as allergies, should those be known or unknown to its user," says Binder. When applied to be skin, though, it could cause irritation if not diluted.
The Final Takeaway
While patchouli does have some benefits for skin, it's best to dilute the oil first, so as not to cause a negative reaction. Otherwise, stick to inhaling patchouli—via scent or aromatherapy oil, which can help relieve stress and impart a feeling of calm and well-being.