Real vs. Fake Palo Santo

closeup of ecuadorian palo santo smudge sticks

The smell of palo santo has been considered sacred since ancient times in places such as Peru and Ecuador. The name translates literally to ‘holy wood’ and was used by shamans during rituals and local events. Palo santo smudge sticks also had the practical purpose of keeping insects away from social gatherings.

Unfortunately, due the emerging global market, the demand for genuine palo santo has grow exponentially. This has led some suppliers to cut corners, such as harvesting trees to early, or selling old stock which has dried a bit more then some would like.

The divine smell of palo santo comes from the natural oils trapped within the wood. Over time, the wood can dry out and the oils can evaporate. This can take quite a while though, because it’s important to note that palo santo sits on the ground of the forest for 4 to 10 years before being harvested. The aging process is causes the scent to develop.

Although counterfeit palo santo wood certainly does exist, the truth is that it’s not as common as some people believe. The more common problems typically involve quality control issues, which lead people to think product may not be authentic, even though it often is. However, you should always make sure your palo santo is ethically sourced.

Common Palo Santo Quality Control Issues

  • Since palo santo is a natural product, every tree will smell a little different, and anytime you buy palo santo, you are going to get a different tree. The quality will not always be the same, no matter who you buy from. That’s nature. It’s important to keep this in mind.
  • The wood must age naturally in the woods for 4 to 10 years in order to develop it’s beautiful scent. Some suppliers may sometimes, whether intentionally or not, harvest younger fallen limbs.
  • Sometimes suppliers don’t sell their palo santo as quickly as they thought they would. This can result in them holding onto stock for years, especially if they buy a particularly large amount. It takes quite a while for palo santo to lose it’s essence, but it can happen. Especially if the wood didn’t have a large amount of embedded resin in the first place.

How to Tell if Your Palo Santo is Real

The truth is that counterfeit palo santo is less common then most people think. Most of the material which people consider to be fake is simply older wood, or simply low-quality due to natural variance. If you do think your palo santo may be counterfeit or oil-dipped then read these tips below to help you decipher whether or not you have authentic palo santo wood.

  • Real palo santo will have it’s typical odor, but it often won’t be extremely strong. This is normal. It’s wood. Although not always the case, sometimes suppliers may put palo santo oil on older palo santo wood to pass it off as higher quality then it really is. This can cause the palo santo to have an extremely strong odor, but it’s often hard to tell whether it’s due to quality or deception.
  • When burning palo santo, the smoke may be black while it is on fire, but after the fire is put out and the stick is smoldering, the smoke should turn white. If the smoke is still black after the flame is put out and allowed to smolder, then that is a sign of either a low-quality or perhaps oiled product.
  • As the palo santo burns and smolders, you should see some natural oils rise up to the top of the wood. Depending on how much oil is in the wood, it could simply look glossy, or it could even drip slightly. If no oil rises up through the wood, then the wood may simply be stale or may even be some other type of wood.
  • If you still aren’t sure if your palo santo is real, another way to tell is to shave some strips off a piece of the wood and put your nose up to it. If you can smell the fragrance of palo santo from within the wood, then it is most likely real and of quality enough to use.
  • The density of palo santo can definitely vary, but it is typically a softer type of wood. Although sometimes it can naturally be denser, most of the time you should be able to carve pieces off with a knife, or maybe even chisel it with a hammer and chisel. Keep in mind that it is still wood, so although it may happen, do not expect to be able to simply snap pieces in half with your hands.

3 thoughts on “Real vs. Fake Palo Santo

  1. Avatar
    MadFishMonger says:

    Hi! I have been trying to discover the name of a specific ingredient used in a lot of commercial incense nowadays that I am fairly certain is a palo santo alternative. I am allergic to it, I can’t even buy incense anymore because of it, but I also can’t seem to find the specific name of it. Would you happen to know what is commonly used commercially these days instead of palo santo?

  2. Avatar
    Jennifer R. says:

    I have some palo santo that I am unsure about.
    It smells good, but seems to make a lot of black smoke, even while smoldering.
    Any thoughts?

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