Palo Santo: Benefits, Uses, Sustainability

Palo Santo: Benefits, Uses, Sustainability


Palo santo, also known as Bursera graveolens, comes from a small tree or shrub native to Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, and other South American countries. Because its wood contains abundant aromatic resin, it is often used to make incense sticks, resins, and essential oils.

Palo santo, which means “holy wood,” has historically been used in its native cultures to treat pain and for religious activities such as driving out evil spirits and cleansing spaces of negative energies. People also use palo santo to ward off mosquitos and to relax or promote a meditative state.

Research on palo santo’s effectiveness and health benefits is limited, but it shows promise. More human studies are needed to adequately determine its health benefits.

In areas where palo santo grows naturally, it has traditionally been used to treat symptoms like arthritis pain, sore throats, and headaches. Recently, research has found that this may be related to the presence of limonene in the oil, which may be responsible for its effectiveness. Limonene is a chemical found in plant peels and oils.

More research is needed to determine if palo santo is an effective option for treating pain.

Historically, palo santo has been used to repel mosquitos and other pesky insects. The general belief is that limonene in the oils and wood keeps the bugs at bay. Older research has found that limonene has natural insecticide properties and may be useful as an insect repellant.

More research is needed to determine if palo santo is an effective and safe way to repel mosquitos and other insects.

Burning palo santo has traditionally been used in religious settings or for meditation due to its believed ability to promote relaxation. Some of its relaxation benefits may come from its pleasing scent. Research has shown that breathing in different aromas activates the brain’s olfactory system, which can stimulate the body’s relaxation response.

More research is needed to fully understand how palo santo might promote relaxation and ease the body’s response to stress.

Most people use palo santo as incense and burn sticks to clear out negative energy, get rid of certain odors, provide a backdrop for meditation or prayer, or even repel mosquitos. Some people use just one stick, but traditionally, burning incense involves using three or more sticks simultaneously. One stick will typically take about 50-90 minutes to burn.

Palo santo oil is sometimes used in a diffuser for similar reasons. Some people even mix the oil with a carrier oil and apply it to their skin for pain relief or to treat fungal infections, especially since it is known for its antibacterial, antifungal, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. Research on these properties in humans is lacking and largely limited to very small studies or in vitro studies (laboratory tests performed on tissue samples or cells).

Because palo santo is available as an essential oil, incense sticks, or resin, there are several considerations when using it safely.

First, palo santo is often sold as an essential oil. Start small if you plan to diffuse it or apply it to your skin. It’s also a good idea to perform a patch test on a small area of skin—especially if you have never used it before:

  • Put a small amount (mixed with a carrier oil) on the inside of your elbow
  • Repeat this consistently for the next few days to see how your skin responds
  • If you don’t notice any irritation, rashes, or other reactions, it is likely safe to use on your skin—though it’s always best to discuss it with a healthcare provider first

If you plan to burn the resin or an incense stick, you’ll want to take fire safety precautions. According to the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), candles and incense fires were the third leading cause of bedroom fires, with about 20 home fires reported daily from 2015 to 2019. Here are some tips on how to use resin and sticks safely:

  • Make sure your resin or sticks are at least 12 inches away from anything that might catch fire
  • Use a sturdy, uncluttered surface where your incense cannot be knocked over
  • Extinguish incense before leaving a room or going to bed
  • Keep your resin, sticks, matches, lighters, and other gear away from children and pets
  • Refrain from using incense in the bedroom or other areas where you may fall asleep
  • Keep the room ventilated and reduce the amount burned to protect your lungs, nose, and throat

Other Risks to Consider

If you plan to burn palo santo, you need to recognize that the smoke from the resin or stick may irritate your lungs or cause respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer. Some research suggests that inhaling incense may be on par with or even more harmful than passive smoking.

While the incense is burning, your lungs are taking in a variety of chemicals and gasses, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde, and nitrogen dioxide. In addition to increasing your risk for disease, it can cause nose and throat irritation. It has also been connected to the development of childhood asthma and allergy.

Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has labeled palo santo “of least concern” when it comes to being endangered, it’s still important to try to use oils, resin, and sticks that have been ethically sourced—especially because this tree’s habitat is threatened by deforestation.

Palo santo is found in tropical dry forests with substantial rainfall for a few months, followed by a long, dry season lasting seven months or more. These forests are home to many endemic animals and plants—those that cannot be found elsewhere. However, 95% of tropical dry forests have been lost due to deforestation, farming, and other human activities. Only 5% of the original ecosystem remains.

There are two different trees referred to as palo santo, and they can be confused with one another when doing online research or making purchases. The other tree is Gonopterodendron sarmientoi, which grows in Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. This tree, used to make furniture and sometimes essential oils, is listed on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.

If you want to purchase and use palo santo (Bursera graveolens), it’s important to research the company you are purchasing it from. Check out how it’s manufactured and whether they have certifications like:

  • Certified sustainable: Meets certain requirements for environmental and economic practices (e.g., energy efficiency, reusing materials)
  • Fair trade: Focuses on human rights (e.g., living wages and ethical treatment)
  • Cruelty-free: Does not involve animal testing or harm in any part of the process, including the ingredients used
  • Certified B corporation: Ethical, socially involved, and environmentally conscious

Overall, look for products that are produced responsibly and do not exploit workers. You also want to ensure that the production does not harm the environment or the people who live in the area where it’s being produced.

Palo santo, or Bursera graveolens, is a tree native to South America. Its abundant aromatic resin is used to make oils and incense sticks. These products are used to treat pain, ward off mosquitos, and promote relaxation.

While research is limited on its benefits to human health, palo santo has a rich history of use in its native cultures. However, some risks need to be considered, such as its tendency to irritate the nose, throat, and lungs and potentially lead to health issues. If you want to use palo santo for health reasons, talk to a healthcare provider first to determine if it’s right for you.

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