Fragrance Trends

Perfumer's treasure chest: Patchouli


Beverley Bayne


By Beverley Bayne, Director of Perfumery at CPL Aromas UK 

What is perfumery and how is it used in fragrance? A member of the mint family, patchouli (Pogostemon Cablin) is a small bushy herb that can be found across Indonesia. The use of this iconic perfumery oil is all encompassing and patchouli can be found in top quality fine fragrances (masculine and feminine) and trickles down into personal care products. In fabric care fragrances it forms the backbone of many fabric conditioner fragrances due to its substantivity on cloth. Patchouli has found uses in candles and home fragrances due to its amazing diffusion in the air.


Classed as one of our ‘woody’ odour family, patchouli has a unique odour that is rich and sweet but at the same time earthy and spicy. It has herbal, camphoraceous aspects which add freshness to the top note. The base note is rich and dry and long lasting, up to three weeks on a smelling strip.


The wild Patchouli plants grow well under coffee. Farmers collect the leaves to produce the oil in stills in their back yards to supplement their income. To start the process from plant to essential oil, the leaves are lightly fermented by allowing them to wither in the sun or they are scalded with steam. This ruptures the cell walls, releasing the oil and maximizing yield. The essential oil is obtained by simple steam distillation of the leaves. Now for the yield, 20 tonnes of wet leaves when dried result in 5 tonnes of leaves that is ready for the still, the yield after distillation is between 100 -150kg of crude oil.

The farmers take this crude oil to a central market where it is weighed (after any residual water from the steam distillation is removed) and the farmer paid. One kilo of Patchouli oil is roughly the equivalent of one month’s salary for a domestic maid, so not an insignificant amount for a family. This crude oil arrives at the market in a wide variety of containers and the quality varies. The next steps in the process are to filter, bulk and pack the oil before it is de-iononised. After de-ionisation the oil is packed in lacquered drums ready to be sold. 


Patchouli isn’t always the perfumer’s friend. For the fragrance industry the de-ionisation process is critical, any free iron (from iron stills used by the farmers) in Patchouli will result in oil that discolours quickly or can cause discolouration in the final product. The ferric ions can easily be removed with citric or tartaric acid. Now, modern stainless steel stills eliminate the ferric ions that cause the discolouration.

Another factor is cost. The Patchouli market can be quite volatile and supply can depend on price. The farmers will only collect the Patchouli leaves if the price is reasonable. If the price is too low they won’t grow or collect it, which can give the CPL buying team a few headaches. But, over the years, the team has developed close relationships with our suppliers to ensure our star perfumers have what they need on the palette.


Patchouli is a very versatile and popular oil with perfumers. It finds use in many fragrance types including woody, chypre (Patchouli is an essential part of the accord) and oriental for both masculine and feminine fragrances. It also has great affinity with vanilla and goumande accords, florals from exotic ylang-ylang to English rose, amber and musk. It can be used at low dosages, 0.1% can be very effective in the finished fragrance. At the other end of the range Patchouli can be used up to 40%-50% in a fragrance.

Over many decades Patchouli has often been widely used in fine fragrances, defying fragrance trend. It can be found in all brands from Givenchy Gentleman (40%) to Ralph Lauren’s Romance (0.5%). From Pomegranate Noir by Jo Malone to Fahrenheit for Men by Dior. The Thierry Mugler Angel fragrances are created around a clever accord of patchouli, candy floss and green hyacinth tones. Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle employs a pure grade of patchouli with a high level of patchouli alcohol, which has become increasingly popular in the world of fine fragrance.


This wide use in fine fragrances has trickled down into personal care. Due to patchouli’s stability, power and substantivity it is highly valued by the perfumer and proves to be a cost effective material adding character, performance and bloom from the products inital smell as well as in use. Its bloom from warm water and substantivity on hair and skin is simply remarkable. 

Extensive testing of patchouli has proved it to be diffusive in the air in all types of air freshening products from aerosols to candles. We shouldn’t forget its popularity in the hippy movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s in joss-sticks; it became a symbol of freedom and sensuality.  

As well as being very substantive on skin and hair it is also substantive on cloth and forms an important part of the main structure of many fabric conditioner fragrances, particularly blue variants.


During the 18th and 19th century, silk traders from China utilised the insecticide and fungicide properties of patchouli by layering the valuable silk with patchouli leaves to protect it from moth infestation as the patchouli prevented the moths laying their eggs. The leaves left a tell-tale scent signature that became synonymous with luxury goods, hence it’s path into prestigious skin fragrances. Also popular with aromatherapists, patchouli is reported to be an anti-depressant, anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, deodorising, sedative and calming. Its popularity in fragrances grew during the aromatherapy boom of the 1980’s and 90’s.


We now have various types and grades of patchouli available to us. The traditional oil is known as Patchouli Dark. It’s distilled in iron vessels and needs de-ionisation to keep it colour stable. Patchouli Light is distilled in stainless steel, removing the need for de-ionisation. Patchouli oil can sometimes have an unpleasant fatty character that is undesirable, so we now have Patchouli Heart or Coeur available. This is a rectified quality. Certain fractions are removed from the oil resulting in a quality of oil with a high patchouli alcohol content, about 70%-80%. The odour has a clean fresh woody-earthy character. 

More recently this process has been taken further and we now have the crystalline product Healingwood ™ which is a very concentrated, terpeneless product produced by fractionating the oil followed by a crystallization process. This product is found in many fine fragrances but is also effective at trace amounts in fragrances to give a Patchouli ‘lift’.


One of the holy grails of our industry has been to try and synthesize a molecule that is similar in odour to the natural oil. This has been almost impossible, but developments in biotechnology techniques have provided perfumers with a new raw material, Clearwood ™.

Clearwood™ is produced by fermenting sugar cane and yeast. It is then distilled producing a product rich in patchouli alcohol that also has the added bonus of being classed as natural. The type of yeast is absolutely critical to this technology. The resulting material is different to the oil, less earthy, more feminine and has a softer, powdery character. These innovative biotech methods are sustainable and provide a product that is of a constant quality and price. As sugar consumption is reducing, this branch of research offers sugar producers a new commercial opportunity. The price has to be competitive for a biotech product to succeed in the fragrance industry but it is an interesting area of research.

Lastly, CPL does have in house Patchouli Bases on the palette. A perfumery base is a formulation of a blend of naturals and synthetics mimicking the odour of patchouli oil at a lower cost enabling the perfumer to achieve the patchouli character in a wider range of fragrance price points.

Every perfumer in the world will use patchouli almost every day of their working life. A bold statement I know, but I think a true one. As a consumer I can guarantee you will smell a product containing versatile patchouli every day, it could be in your favourite fine fragrance, a mood enhancing candle or the comforting smell of your fabric conditioner. Patchouli is one of the magical ingredients on the perfumer’s palette.


Spring / Summer 2017

This edition launches the new look of our trend magazine, which for the first time incorporates our new corporate branding. Inspired by the world of fashion we bring you new ideas and insights that help to grow your brands and delight your customers.

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