Using spiritual tools for energy cleansing is not a new practice, but it has gained exponential popularity in recent years. This is unsurprising, given the continual stream of bad vibes after bad vibes these days. Clearing energy with sacred smoke is a way to reset and release negativity within your home, yourself, or in objects like crystals or other ritual objects. At pretty much any metaphysical shop you could come across, you’ll find a similar selection of herbs and botanicals available for cleansing. One of the choice picks across the board is palo santo, or “holy wood” in Spanish — and given its sacred status, it’s important to understand how to use palo santo respectfully and responsibly.
First, what is palo santo and where does it come from? The tree is native to South America and is a distant cousin of frankincense, myrrh, and copal, which are also commonly used for energy clearing purposes. It is believed that burning palo santo yields a number of spiritual benefits. The sweet-smelling smoke has been traditionally used in South American indigenous cultures as part of sacred rituals, which prompts question to the ethics of its use outside of these practices. On top of that, there’s been confusing controversy and misunderstanding around whether or not palo santo is endangered and if it should be avoided on that front.
Needless to say, if you’re learning how to use palo santo, having a well-rounded picture of its rich history and cultural significance is integral to using it ethically. Incorporating this sacred smoke into any ritual can be hugely beneficial — below, the experts break down how to do so in a respectful way.
The History Of Palo Santo
According to native Peruvian and co-founder of Luna Sundara, Sandra Manay, the palo santo tree that is used for smoke cleansing grows in the dry forests of Central America and the northern parts of South America. Throughout time, indigenous Latin cultures have been using the holy wood for cleansing, ceremonies, and rituals. “It has been used traditionally by local shaman and healers [known as Curanderos], but the way that I grew up using it was as a mosquito repellent and as a way to cleanse the home,” Manay tells NYLON.
When palo santo is burned, the smoke releases a subtle, woody, sweet aroma with hints of mint and citrus that’s said to be both grounding and uplifting. Ancient shamans would use the sacred wood in healing ceremonies with the widely held belief that the tree carried spiritual healing energy, able to purify and clear negative energies and create a sacred space.
“But recently, I think it's been used in different ways,” Manay says. “We're appreciating it more than we did before. And that goes with a lot of spiritual things that we grew up using.” Now, she notes, many people are returning to their roots and holding more gratitude for what Mother Earth gives.
Is Palo Santo Endangered?
One of the biggest misconceptions around palo santo that causes apprehension from consumers (rightfully so) is the idea that it’s endangered. This is where things have gotten a little lost in translation. “There have been a few rumors,” says Jessica Troupe, founder and owner of Heritage Apothecary. “I first saw [the rumor] like two years ago that palo santo is going extinct and there were, like, 200 trees left.” This isn’t exactly false information, but it requires some clarification where smoke cleansing is concerned. “It's important to distinguish that there are two separate trees,” Troupe tells NYLON. Both trees are called palo santo, but they are two separate species that grow in different regions and are used for different purposes.
Bursea graveolens is the species of palo santo you’ll see for sale in ritual shops. This is the tree that is predominantly native to the northern regions of South America, including parts of Peru and Ecuador, and extending into Central America. Then you have the other species of palo santo, Bulnesia sarmientoi. This tree is concentrated further south, native to regions encompassing Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia, according to Troupe. “One is going extinct. One is not going extinct,” she tells NYLON. “The one that's used for spiritual cleansing is not going extinct.”
Revered for its density and strength, Bulnesia sarmientoi, the endangered species, has been a prized timber export for centuries. “It's largely used for things like furniture-making and things that require a lot of wood,” notes Troupe. “That's the reason why that one is going extinct.”
Though they are two completely separate trees, they share a name, which makes things confusing. So it makes sense that there’s all this rhetoric telling consumers not to buy an endangered wood for rituals, but the bottom line is that Bursea graveolens, which is used for spiritual purposes, is not currently endangered or on track for extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Further, it can actually be damaging to artisans and communities harvesting palo santo to prematurely declare it endangered, Troupe notes. “The people that are harvesting it are most likely interested in conserving the natural habitat because number one, it's their land, and number two, it’s what provides economic security for them and for their families,” she tells NYLON.
How To Use Palo Santo Ethically
Smoke Cleansing, Not Smudging
Just because the herb is not endangered doesn’t make it an inconsequential free-for-all. It’s still part of ancient indigenous practice, so there are things to keep in mind. First on the ethical docket? Smoke cleansing versus smudging — yes, there is a difference. “Smudging is a closed practice,” Troupe tells NYLON. “Not everyone can just go around and say, ‘I'm smudging’ or participate in smudging because that actually is part of native religion,” she explains. Smudging is a ritual sacred to specific cultural practices and has its own spiritual significations.
Smoke cleansing, on the other hand, is different. “That’s universal,” Troupe notes. “We can definitely smoke cleanse and clear the energy in that way.” If burning herbs and using their spiritual properties as a way to reset your energy is something you partake in as a non-indigenous person, that is called smoke cleansing and is what most people do with palo santo.
Use It Respectfully & Responsibly
As a native Peruvian selling palo santo products, Manay is often questioned by customers on how or if they can use palo santo as non-indigenous people, given its cultural significance. “Many, many people asked me about it,” she tells NYLON. The general consensus between her and the indigenous communities she spoke with on the issue was that anyone can smoke cleanse with palo santo “as long as it's being used in a way of you not mocking it and you’re using it responsibly,” she offers. “If it’s not your culture, you can appreciate it by using it responsibly ... The world is so connected that it's so hard to go to the roots of where something is coming from,” she says. “You just have to be mindful of how you use certain products.”
Breana Fernandez, House of Intuition crystal expert, concurs on the front of mindfulness for respect. “Just come from a place of gratitude,” she tells NYLON. “Be very mindful and give thanks to whoever [the company is] purchasing it from, especially back to Mother Earth herself.”
Research Its Origins
Another way to use palo santo responsibly? Know where it’s coming from. “Make sure the company that you're buying it from works directly with the communities,” Manay says, “because you don't want to end up being part of the problem.” She stresses the importance of researching where the company sources their palo santo and choosing one where everyone in the process is treated fairly, from the communities who pick up the wood to the people cutting it. Additionally, it’s important to look into whether on not the source has a replanting program and isn’t just diminishing the trees.
Troupe recommends talking to the artisan you’re buying from to find out which region they source from and what their process is. “They need to be able to let you know how it is sustainably sourced and whether there are efforts of reforestation going on,” she explains. Not only should they be replacing what they harvest, she says, but how they harvest is very important as well. “For it to be ethically sourced, it needs to be the branches that fall off the tree,” she tells NYLON. Collecting the mature branches off the forest floor that have naturally fallen off is the traditional method of harvesting palo santo.
Not only is the traditional method the ethical one — as opposed to prematurely cutting live branches down — but the dried, dead branches will also be more potent, according to Troupe. “They are the ones infused with the most Ponto oil,” she says. “And those are the actual sacred parts of the tree that would be used for ceremony or ritual cleansings.”
What Is Palo Santo Used For?
As mentioned, palo santo is a powerhouse for clearing stagnant energy and creating a sacred space. Troupe recommends using palo santo to cleanse and invite in your own intentions for journaling, meditating, manifesting, cleansing your home, and restoring your energy. If you notice you feel off or drained after being around a lot of people, Troupe says that’s a good time to purify and reset with palo santo. According to Fernandez, the holy wood is also known to attract abundance and good luck. “Palo santo is usually used during purifying rituals and during ceremonies to connect to spirit and surrounding positive vibrations,” she adds.
Not only does the herb cleanse, but it also boosts morale. This multifaceted aspect is unique to palo santo — whereas some herbs like sage are used strictly for purification and wiping the slate clean, palo santo also infuses its own energy, according to Troupe. She describes this as a beautifully tranquil and grounding energy that comes along with the cleansing benefits.
“Palo santo, it's a really special herb,” Troupe tells NYLON. “[You can use palo santo] whenever you feel the need for clearing something or you're in the midst of a transition, you're looking for clarity on what your next steps are, or you're coming into a new job and you want put your best foot forward,” Troupe recommends, adding that many people cleanse with palo santo when moving into a new home or apartment.
Whenever you want to cleanse or set your intentions, palo santo is an amazing tool, “because that's what incense smoke is for,” Troupe tells NYLON. “It’s not only purifying, but it's carrying your prayer, your intention — whatever your supplication — it's carrying it to the spiritual realm and acting like your interceptor and bringing that intention into the spirit realm so that it can manifest,” she continues. You can use it to cleanse yourself as well, to clear out negative thoughts after an argument or any experience that’s left you feeling out of alignment. “You can just cleanse yourself generally to get grounded, and it really does feel calming,” Troupe says. “You feel grounded, you feel more tranquil and at peace.”
How to Use Palo Santo For Cleansing
1. Set Your Intention
To incorporate palo santo into your rituals, first, you’ll need to ask yourself why you’re smoke cleansing, according to Troupe. “There are no limits, whatever your reason — that is your reason,” she offers. If you have a prayer or something you want to say, you can always look up ideas online, but the best intentions are whatever comes straight from your intuition, Troupe tells NYLON.
2. Gather Your Utensils
You’ll need your palo santo and a lighter (obviously), as well as a heat-proof vessel. According to Troupe, it’s customary to use an abalone shell or another kind of shell to signify the water element, but you can use any kind of heat-safe bowl. Next, you’ll put salt or sand into your vessel “to help disperse the ashes and heat of the palo santo or whatever you’re placing on there.”
3. Light Your Palo Santo
Palo santo is slightly difficult to light, so you may have to hold the flame to it for up to 30 seconds until it smolders and you see a reddish-orange ember so that it stays lit. “Once you start to see that flow of smoke, you would blow out the flame,” Fernandez tells NYLON. Next, place the palo santo on your sand or salt, “and then you would either cleanse yourself or the space that you're in,” Fernandez says.
4. Waft The Smoke
Regardless of what you’re cleansing, you’ll want to have your windows or doorways open so the old energy has somewhere to go (and you don’t stink up the house with smoke). Then, if you’re cleansing your space, Troupe notes you’d usually walk in a clockwise direction, letting the smoke waft around. “As you're walking around your home, you're repeating your intention or you're saying your prayer for your space,” she offers.
Fernandez recommends letting the smoke “hit every nook and cranny of the house” by opening all the cupboards and closets. “This is because energy sometimes has a tricky way of hiding itself,” she notes, “so we want to make sure that we're really taking that energetic broom and sweeping out all the energetic dust and debris that's piled up over time.”
If you’re cleansing yourself, you can either just let the smoke cleanse your aura, or you can cleanse different parts of your body for a specific purpose. Troupe recommends cleansing your eyes “so you can see what is beautiful,” your mouth, “so you can speak the truth,” and your feet, “so you can walk in the way that is best aligned with your highest self.”
5. Put The Smoke Out
Usually, the palo santo will go out on its own, but you can also dip it into the salt or sand to extinguish it. “Then you're going to offer gratitude and that’s it,” says Troupe. “I think having a ritual like that is something that brings you clarity, and it allows you to connect with yourself on a daily basis,” she adds. “It allows you to draw in your manifestations because you're in alignment.”
Once you’re aware of how to use palo santo responsibly and respectfully, this holy herb can be an incredibly beneficial addition to your spiritual rituals. Whether you’ve had a bad day and need to wash the negativity off, or are carving out a sacred space, there’s a reason smoke cleansing with palo santo has been around since ancient times.
Sandra Manay, co-founder of Luna Sundara
Breana Fernandez, House of Intuition crystal expert