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Cosmeceutical critique: patchouli.

Pogostemon cablin, known in the West as patchouli or guang huo-xiang in China, is a long-time staple in traditional Chinese medicine for various indications, particularly gastrointestinal and skin disorders. (1)

Patchouli oil, which contains several mono- and sesquiterpenoids, alkaloids, and flavonoids, is thought to possess significant anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities. (2) In fact, it is reputed to impart antiviral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic effects, and is also known to protect intestinal barrier function. (3) Peng et al. have found that patchouli oil exerts significant antibacterial activity against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). (4)

After a comprehensive 2013 review, Chen et al. deemed P. cablin to have potential clinical benefits as an effective adaptogenic herbal treatment. (3) It is thought to have some antiacne properties as well (1). Further, P. cablin is among the Top 10 most-often-used traditional Chinese medicine prescriptions for skin care and appearance. (1)

In Brazil, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia, P. cablin is cultivated for its essential oil, which plays an important role in the perfume industry. Patchouli essential oil, featured in perfumes, soaps, cosmetics, and as incense, is used by aromatherapists for its calming and reviving effects. The essential oil has also been shown to impart antioxidant activity. (5)


In 2014, Lin et al. studied the protective effects of P. cablin essential oil against ultraviolet (UV)-induced skin photoaging in mice. The researchers applied patchouli oil for 2 hours before UV exposure to the dorsal depilated skin of mice. They found that patchouli oil doses of 6 mg/mouse and 9 mg/mouse significantly suppressed skin wrinkle formation, mitigated skin elasticity impairment, and augmented collagen content (21.9% and 26.3%, respectively). The same doses also yielded significant reductions in epidermal thickness and malondialdehyde content, and blocked the disruption of collagen and elastic fibers. Patchouli oil treatment also resulted in the up-regulation of the antioxidant enzymes superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase, and catalase. The investigators concluded that patchouli oil, perhaps due to its antioxidant characteristics, and sesquiterpene constituents in particular, was effective in preventing photoaging in mice, and warrants attention as a potential agent to hinder photoaging in humans.1

Feng et al. also investigated the effects of topically applied patchouli alcohol on UV-induced photoaging in mice that year. For 9 weeks, investigators applied patchouli oil solution or a vehicle to the depilated dorsal skin of 6-week-old mice. They found that patchouli oil significantly hastened the recovery of UV-induced skin lesions, which they ascribed to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity of the agent and its down-regulation of the expression of matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-1 and MMP-3. (2)

Antimicrobial and mosquito repellent activity

In a 2005 study by Trongtokit et al. of the mosquito-repellent activity of 38 essential oils at three concentrations (10%, 50%, or undiluted) against the mosquito Aedes aegypti under laboratory conditions using human volunteers, undiluted P. cablin oil was one of four [along with Cymbopogon nardus (citronella), Syzygium aromaticum (clove), and Zanthoxylum limonella (Thai name: makaen)] undiluted oils to yield an effect, 2 hours of full repellency. The investigators then tested the same concentrations of these oils for repellency against Culex quinquefasciatus (the Southern house mosquito) and Anopheles dims (the mosquito considered to be a vector of malaria in Asian forested zones). The undiluted oils provided the greatest protection, with clove oil rendering the most durable repellency. (6)

Wu et al. determined the acaricidal activity of compounds extracted from patchouli oil against the house dust mite (Dermatophagoides farinae) in 2012. They isolated 2-(1,3-dihydroxybut-2-enylidene)-6-methyl-3-oxo- heptanoic acid (DHEMH), the hydrolysate of pogostone, and 15 other constituents in patchouli oil, ultimately ascertaining that DHEMH and patchouli oil itself were the most toxic substances to D. farinae. The investigators concluded that patchouli oil and DHEMH warrant consideration and more study for their acaricidal potential as environmentally friendly, effective, and simple fumigant alternatives to chemical agents. (7)

In 2013, Yang et al. used molecular docking technology to evaluate the antibacterial activity of patchouli oil in vitro. They identified 26 compounds in patchouli oil displaying antibacterial activity, with pogostone and patchouli alcohol exhibiting the strongest activity. (8) Later that year, Yang et al. used the same technology to establish that Herba pogostemonis oil exhibited potent antibacterial effects, especially the constituents pogostone and (-)-Herba pogostemonis alcohol. (9) Raharjo and Fatchiyah also used molecular docking tools and Chimera 1.7s viewer software in a virtual screening of compounds from patchouli oil, concluding that alpha-patchouli alcohol is a potential inhibitor of the cyclo-oxygenase (COX)-l enzyme. This is notable given the pivotal role of COX-1 in the inflammatory response. (10)

The next year, Peng et al. isolated one of the primary constituents of patchouli oil, pogostone, and assessed its antibacterial activity in vitro and in vivo. They found that pogostone suppressed both gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria in vitro. The researchers noted that pogostone was active against some drug-resistant bacteria (such as MRSA). Via intraperitoneal injection, pogostone displayed antibacterial activity in male and female Kunming mice against Escherichia coli and MRSA. At concentrations of 50 and 100 mg/kg, 90% of the mice infected with E. coli were protected; 60% of the mice at 25 mg/kg were protected. For mice with MRSA, 60% were protected at a dose of 100 mg/kg and 50% at a dose of 50 mg/kg. The investigators concluded that pogostone is a viable antibacterial agent for clinical use. (4)

Transdermal delivery

A 2008 study by Luo et al. showed that patchouli oil was among three volatile oils that improved the skin penetration of the flavonoids baicalin. (11) It was less effective than several compounds, including clove oil, camphor, menthol, and oleic acid, as a transdermal enhancer in a subsequent study by Zheng et al. (12)


Patchouli oil continues to be used today in traditional Chinese medicine. In the West, the established literature on Pogostemon cablin is thin, but what has emerged recently, particularly studies on the protection against photoaging in mice, supports the continued investigation of this ancient herb to determine its potential role in dermatologic practice. As it is, much more research is necessary.


(1.) J Ethnopharmacol. 2014;154(2):408-18.

(2.) Eur J Pharm Sci. 2014;63:113-23.

(3.) Expert Opin Investig Drugs. 2013;22(2):245-57.

(4.) Chin MedJ (Engl). 2014;127(23):4001-5.

(5.) J Agric Food Chem. 2007;55(5):1737-42

(6.) Phytother Res. 2005;19(4):303-9.

(7.) Chem Pharm Bull (Tokyo). 2012;60(2):178-82.

(8.) Iran J Pharm Res. 2013 Summer;12(3):307-16.

(9.) Pak J Pharm Sci. 2013;26(6):1173-9.

(10.) Bioinformation. 2013;9(6):321-4.

(11.) Zhong Yao Cai. 2008;31(ll):1721-4

(12.) Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi. 2009;34(20): 2599-603.

Dr. Baumann is chief executive officer of the Baumann Cosmetic & Research Institute in the Design District in Miami. She founded the Cosmetic Dermatology Center at the University of Miami in 1997. Dr. Baumann wrote the textbook, "Cosmetic Dermatology: Principles and Practice" (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), and a book for consumers, "The Skin Type Solution" (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006). She has contributed to the Cosmeceutical Critique column in Dermatology News since January 2001. Her latest book, "Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Ingredients, " was published in November 2014. Dr. Baumann has received funding for clinical grants from Allergan, Aveeno, Avon Products, Evolus, Galderma, GlaxoSmithKline, Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, Mary Kay, Medicis Pharmaceuticals, Neutrogena, Philosophy, Topix Pharmaceuticals, and Unilever.


Caption: Pogostemon cablin, known in the West as patchouli.


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Author:Baumann, Leslie S.
Publication:Dermatology News
Date:Nov 1, 2015
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