There it was, sitting in my email inbox: a subject line calling out "the next big ingredient in fragrance." I was taken aback — and not because the ingredient in question was something unusual I'd never heard of. In fact, I was very familiar with it. The latest "trend," the "seasonal must-have," was Palo Santo, wood from the wild Bursera graveolens tree that is native to South America.
Over the next few weeks, this would happen again and again: pitches from brands describing the scent of Palo Santo with words like "luxurious," "energizing," and "exotic." With every email, I could only think of how my grandmother would react. 'Ay mi hija, que te puedo decir,' she would say, disappointed, at a loss for words — just like I was.
The ritualistic burning of Palo Santo, which translates to "sacred" or "holy" wood, can be traced back to the Incan Empire, where it was used in spiritual ceremonies and as a kind of folk medicine. Fast forward nearly 500 years to today and Palo Santo is still used within Central and South American and other Latinx communities to cleanse spaces and people of negative energy (or mala energia), and even to keep insects away, as the smoke's distinct scent also serves as a repellant.
My memories of Palo Santo go back to when I was a kid. My grandmother would clean her house every weekend, but the cleaning didn't end once the floors were squeaky clean; it was only when the smoke of a lit Palo Santo stick had been passed from corner to corner, room to room of the apartment. Although I saw her ritual as eccentric at the time, as I got older I came to admire mi mama's spirituality. It also helped us form a deeper connection, like when she recently came to bless the new apartment I'd be sharing with my boyfriend. From the smoke of the Palo Santo to the Holy Water that she tossed around — and even the baby Jesus statuettes she left in the office and kitchen — every detail felt like an expression of her love.
So, you can imagine how someone who grew up knowing the deeply spiritual significance of Palo Santo would feel watching it be marketed as just another trendy ingredient. "It's not just some thing you buy at the store," says Cindy Y. Rodriguez, founder of Reclama, a company that hosts spiritual retreats for women of color. "Palo Santo has been culturally appropriated. The thing that my Peruvian family used so discreetly here in the U.S. in order to not be ridiculed or ostracized is now a trend. It's like a slap in the face."
Rodriguez says that two questions aren't being asked enough when it comes to the spiritual wood: "Are you explaining the history and meaning of this?" and "Are you ethically sourcing this?" Next to cultural exploitation, the sourcing of Palo Santo is another rising concern. The Bursera graveolens tree can only be harvested once it dies a natural death, which can take decades, and should never be chopped down. Because of the new market for it, some have taken to illegally cutting down the trees before their time and putting the natural oils on the chopped wood to give it that genuine "palo santo" scent, even when it's anything but.
Sandra Manay, founder of Luna Sundara, a shop that sells authentic Peruvian and Ecuadorian products, says that people also look to avoid all the meticulous requirements of importing the wood, like inspections and taxes (a.k.a. dinero) — which is illegal. Manay, who was born in Peru, has seen the corruption firsthand. She works directly with the countries' governments to import her wood legally (each have their own regulations), while also making sure the surrounding Indigenous communities that work with the trees are being taken care of. "I ask the people if they're getting paid fairly, how long they've been working, and if the women are also allowed to work," she says.
Another company that prioritizes sound sourcing is Rahua, a hair-care brand that has since branched out into a variety of beauty products, including a Palo Santo fragrance. Rahua has had a Palo Santo collection since the brand's inception in 2008. Founders Anna Ayers (who is from the southern U.S.) and Fabian Lliguin (who is Ecuadorian) have worked over the years to prioritize sustainability and fair trade in their business. As such, the brand works with local communities to plant new trees and ensure that the Indigenous people who protect the rainforest are being paid well above fair-trade price to build strong economies of their own.
"For us, when we approach using any ingredients, especially a precious ingredient like Palo Santo, it's about honoring the ingredient, honoring the source of it, and ensuring that the ingredient is obtained in a way that will live forever," says Ayers. "We go the extra mile for our ingredients, and I would like to see more companies do that."
As Ayers and Manay both reiterate, as important as it is, ensuring proper sourcing of the wood isn't enough. What it comes down to is understanding, and honoring, the rich spiritual meaning Palo Santo has for these communities. "It's all fun and games when you're burning or spraying on Palo Santo, but what about really talking about ancient practices and the Indigenous people?" Rodriguez says. Brujita Skincare founder Leah Guerrero, who grew up using the wood in a traditional Ecuadorian-American home, prides herself on only selling products with sustainably-sourced Palo Santo oil. She donates proceeds from her brand to Nature and Culture International, an organization that works with local Indigenous communities to protect ecosystems in Latin America. "It's not only that [people] aren't giving back and not being aware of the communities that this wood is coming from, but it's being taught incorrectly," she says.
My grandmother, when I told her of Palo Santo being labeled a self-care trend, wasn't surprised by the erasure of spiritual symbolism. "Anything to make centavos (cents) nowadays," she replied, in Spanish. Manay, who remembers eating quinoa in her breakfast oatmeal growing up in Peru and now pays triple the price in the U.S. for the "superfood," says she hopes that holy wood doesn't become a similar (and overpriced) commodity. "I don't want people to see Palo Santo as a money machine," says the entrepreneur, who urges people to do their research, ask questions, and see how the brand is sourcing the wood.
Ultimately, Palo Santo's significance is so much greater than the next beauty trend to be capitalized upon by brands wanting to cash in on its mysticism — and should be treated as such. "It's a spiritual thing that's incorporated into our history," says Rodriguez. "Don't tell part of the story for your pockets. Tell the whole story, or don't tell it at all."