Despite my number of years in the aromatherapy profession, it continues to amaze me the variety of essential oils available, and those which continue to come to the market. It appears that there is no such product as one essential oil extracted from just one plant; each plant can often be extracted in multiple ways, sometimes from multiple parts, and from different regions, resulting in a slight variation of chemical components, therapeutic properties, and/or aroma.
One such oil in question is that of patchouli (Pogostemon cablin). This article discusses the difference between light and dark patchouli essential oil, with regard to aroma and appearance.
Botanical Profile of Patchouli
Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) is a member of the Lamiaceae plant family, so it is botanically related to familiar plants such as lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), peppermint (Mentha x piperita), and thyme (Thymus vulgaris). However, patchouli, unlike many of its relatives, is a native of the tropics and it is found in places such as the Caribbean, Malaysia, South America, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
It is a relatively small herb with fragrant, serrated, oval-shaped leaves, a hairy stem, and inconspicious white/pink/purple flowers.
Distillation Techniques of Patchouli Essential Oil
Patchouli essential oil is traditionally steam distilled from the leaves of the plant. Today, a CO2 extract is also available. However, it is the variations in steam distillation which we are looking at in this article.
Patchouli essential oil is often described as dark patchouli essential oil or light patchouli essential oil. Simply put, dark patchouli essential oil is steam distilled using iron vats whereas light patchouli essential oil is steam distilled using stainless steel vats. You may find light patchouli essential oil also described as iron-free (a reference to the method of distilling).The result: A difference in aroma and appearance of the essential oil.
Aroma and Appearance of Patchouli Essential Oil
Dark patchouli essential oil is a more tenacious, deeper, and richer essential oil than light patchouli essential oil. As the name suggests, light patchouli essential oil is lighter than the dark variety, clearer in color, and, in my opinion, fades more quickly.1
Both dark and light patchouli essential oil are earthy, sweet, and have a somewhat herbacious/woody aroma. It is perhaps the only essential oil which improves with age. Some of the chemical components of patchouli essential oil include patchouli alcohol, patchoulene, and pogostol.2
Due to its tenacity, patchouli essential oil is often used as a fixative in perfumery blends. It has a reputation of being an overpowering oil and sometimes provokes an immediate negative response in some people. However, I think that it gained this reputation due to its popularity as an incense during the 1960s, and the oil itself can be more subtle and grounding, if used correctly. I have used patchouli essential oil to fix aromatic perfume blends that you wouldn’t know contained patchouli unless you read the ingredients.
Quality of Patchouli Essential Oil
I have personally experienced varying qualities in patchouli essential oil from different suppliers. The country of origin is important when purchasing patchouli essential oil, in addition to the distillation method for your required purpose/aroma. Indonesian patchouli essential oil is considered the superior essential oil.3
Uses and Therapeutic Properties of Patchouli Essential Oil
Patchouli’s connection with the hippie era of the 1960’s gave it a reputation as a relaxing and calming aroma. However, patchouli essential oil can be used for many other conditions; these include use in skin care ( acne, dermatitis, eczema, and oily skin) sores, wounds, scar tissue and wrinkles. It is also used in the treatment of depression, stress and other nervous disorders. Other uses of patchouli essential oil include use as an insect repellent, help with menopausal sweating, and varicose veins.
The therapeutic properties of patchouli oil are: Antiseptic, antiviral, astringent, digestive, bactericidal, carminative, anti-inflammatory and a tonic.4 The chemical element of patchoulene, present in the essential oil, is very similar to that of azulene found in chamomile and presents the same anti-inflammatory properties.5
Patchouli essential oil can be sedative at a low dose or stimulating at a higher dose, so the amount of patchouli essential oil that you add to either a therapeutic or perfumery blend will determine the outcome of the blend.
Learn More About Essential Oils with Sedona Aromatherapie
If you would like to learn how to use essential oils and other aromatic plant extracts, consider the Sedona Aromatherapie Linguistics of AromaticsTM Program.
Author’s own opinion.*
Caddy, Rosemary, 1997, Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Colour, UK: Amberwood Publishing Ltd.
Tisserand, Robert, and Rodney Young, 2014, Essential Oil Safety (2nd Edition), UK: Churchill Livingstone
Lawless, Julia, 1995, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, UK: Thorsons
Davis, Patricia, 1999, Aromatherapy: An A-Z, UK: Vermilion
* Author is a 20 year veteran in the health care and aromatherapy industry and a UK-certified aromatherapist. She is both a published author and editor in aromatherapy, a consultant, custom blend formulator and herbal studies student. She is the author of Authentic Aromatherapy and the current chief editor of the NAHA Aromatherapy Journal. She works from her home studio in Sedona, Arizona, where she is in the process of creating her own aromatic stillroom on her one acre homestead and aromatic gardens.