White Sage: A Closer Look


History of White Sage

White sage has a long history of use as a healing herb. That is why interest in this shrub’s healing properties, botanically known as Salvia apiana has soared in recent years. There is even a historical reason for this trend.

The Chumash, a Native American people living along the central and southern coastal regions of California, considered white sage sacred They used the leaves, seeds, and roots for various therapeutic purposes. For example, an infusion of white sage roots was drunk by women of the Cahuilla tribe (also indigenous to Southern California) to facilitate passage of the afterbirth and promote healing.[1] They even used the seeds and leaves as a cosmetic, shampoo, and an essential food source. White sage seeds offered nutritional value as a protein, fat, and carbohydrate source. While the Chumash did not distill the essential oil from white sage, they did use and still use this perennial evergreen shrub for smudging during cleansing and prayer ceremonies. The smoke emanating from burning a white sage smudge stick has a powerful aroma and is thought to help carry prayers to God.[2]


Plant Details

The white sage plant is native to California, Northwest Mexico, and Baja California. This explains why it is sometimes called California white sage. It mainly grows wild in areas of chaparral vegetation,[3] in scrubland below 5,000 feet. This growing environment is characterized by high temperatures, very low rainfall, and warm soils.[4]

In the hot sun of California, the white sage plant material is drying in preparation for distillation. It is recommended that white sage is distilled with dried plant material for a higher yield. Photo taken by Robert Seidel, Founder of The Essential Oil Company and distillation expert.

This photo was taken by Robert Seidel, Founder of The Essential Oil Company and distillation expert.

White Sage Essential Oil

White Sage essential oil has become very popular in recent years. The oil can be diffused in a room, added to bathwater, or used in a massage oil to provide a calming and soothing effect. Unfortunately, the plant is often wild-harvested for essential oil production. Wild harvesting is unsustainable and insensitive to the ethnobotanical significance of this sacred plant. Other factors, such as over-harvesting, fires, habitat loss through urbanization, and the decreasing bee population (white sage is pollinated by large carpenter bees and bumblebees), threaten the white sage population size and genetic variation.[5] This is why wild white sage is on the United Plant Savers Species at Risk List.[6] Fortunately, white sage can be cultivated from seeds and cuttings. When purchasing the essential oil, buyers should look for verification that it’s been distilled from the leaves and stems of cultivated white sage plants. In other words, the oil supplied to aromatherapy retailers, labs, and consumers should be sourced from a distiller who grows it using white sage seeds and cuttings rather than from it being wild harvested.


How to Use White Sage

The powerful and sacred essential oil of white sage has several uses to support optimal health and wellness. Aromatic constituents in the essential oil can help promote comfort with minor aches and pains associated with daily activities. It also can provide support for overall body system resilience. Most importantly, diffusing white sage essential oil can enhance a balanced state of mind, promote relaxation, and improve your mood. Who doesn’t need an aromatic mood boost given our stressful times?

Studies on the chemistry and biological activity of the essential oil from white sage are scarce and currently, there are no clinical studies that focus specifically on white sage essential oil. However, the literature suggests that some of the therapeutic effects of white sage claimed in Native American phytotherapy may be plausible. Many volatile and water-soluble constituents found in essential oil of white sage can also be found in infusions (stronger than a tea) prepared from the leaves and stems.

This explains many of the Native American uses. According to Native American traditional uses a tea made from white sage will decrease sweating, salivation, milk secretions, and mucous secretions of the sinuses, throat, and lungs. [7] Historically, an infusion made from the leaves of white sage could be drunk for its diuretic and diaphoretic effects.[8]

Native Americans found that white sage was one of the best herbal treatments for decreasing lactation in animals or humans during weaning. An infusion prepared from white sage leaves was considered a stomach tonic and valuable for treating sore throats. The infusion was first gargled and then swallowed. The white sage leaf infusion was drunk to ease heavy menstruation, but it was unsuitable for new mothers who planned to breastfeed.[9]

Curiosity About White Sage

Much of the curiosity about white sage essential oil and herb centers around several of its compelling topical therapeutic uses. The potential for white sage essential oil to alleviate minor aches and pains associated with daily life may result from some of its components. Diterpene (sageone) and triterpene (uvaol) have demonstrated effects on opioid receptors.[10] These components were found in solvent extracts (absolutes or tinctures), but their exact content in the essential oil of white sage is unknown.[11] A major component of white sage essential oil is 1,8 cineole which is known to have biological activities that can support joint movement and flexibility.[12], [13]Additionally, studies have shown that certain components of white sage oil can have effects on both opioid and cannabinoid receptors, which can modulate the sensation of minor aches and pains.[14]

Several in vitro studies (analysis performed in an artificial environment) showed that white sage extracts have antioxidant effects (beneficially reducing or prohibiting oxidation).[15],[16] Although these are promising results obtained using in vitro analysis to determine the concentration and potency of substances (bioassays), the actual therapeutic value will need to be further verified using pre-clinical and clinical studies.

An earlier study testing several herbal remedies originating from white sage demonstrated that dichloromethane extracts completely inhibited the growth of the following four tested pathogens: Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Candida albicans.[17] Another study showed that hexane extracts (organic compounds) from the roots of white sage caused growth inhibition of S. aureus, Streptococcus pyogenes, Enterococcus faecalis, and C. albicans.[18]

Other studies have shown that constituents of white sage such as alpha-pinene (most significant activity), camphor, and 1,8 cineole can inhibit the acetylcholinesterase enzyme (AChE),[19] which breaks down the naturally occurring neurotransmitter AChE. In addition, it was suggested that there is a high degree of synergy in the combined action of these terpenes.[20] A clinical study showed that Spanish sage oil, a very similar essential oil with a comparable range of constituents, modulated mood and cognition in healthy young adults.[21] This suggests that white sage essential oil could be effective in providing support for mild cognitive impairment.


White Sage Used for Perfumery

Perhaps it’s because white sage oil has a fresh, penetrating, uplifting aroma that there’s interest in using it as a component in perfumes. It does blend well with Atlas cedarwood, lavender, lemon, pine, rosemary, and thyme. White Sage is also a top note with high aroma intensity and is relatively stable in soap.


White Sage Versatility

As it turns out, the Chumash Native Americans were very knowledgeable about the many uses for white sage and infusions from the leaves and roots. Future studies may uncover properties and use for white sage essential oil. While this herb and essential oil have excellent potential for aromatherapy therapeutic applications, further clinical studies are required to confirm its therapeutic value and safety. However, don’t let the lack of clinical studies deter you from adding this wonderful essential oil to your aroma apothecary but ensure you are aware of the safety guidelines.

 Safety Guidelines

As a general safety precaution, always take great care when using essential oils that have more than 10% 1,8 cineole. Essential oil of white sage contains 1,8 cineole ranging from 24.6 to 71.7%. Note 1,8 cineole is also called eucalyptol or cajuputol. Children are susceptible to 1,8 cineole. Always check the percentage of 1,8 cineole in essential oils. If 1,8 cineole is above 10%, note the following safety precautions:

  • Do not apply full strength to the face, eyes, or nose.
  • Avoid diffusion for longer than 15 minutes in a well-ventilated room for children under 10 years of age.

Do not apply, even diluted, to the face or nose of infants or children under 10 years of age.

ACHS.edu Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent disease. The FDA has no reviewed this article. Always consult with your primary care physician or naturopathic doctor before making any significant changes to your health and wellness routine.


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[1] Krol, A., Kokotkiewicz, A., & Luczkiewicz, M. (2021). White Sage (salvia apiana) a ritual and medicinal plant of the Chaparral: Plant characteristics in comparison with other salvia species. Planta Medica, 88(08), 604–627. https://doi.org/10.1055/a-1453-0964

[2] Adams JD Jr, Garcia C. Spirit, mind, and body in Chumash healing. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005 Dec;2(4):459-63. doi: 10.1093/ecam/neh130.

[3] Chaparral are scrubland plant communities composed of broad-leaved evergreen shrubs, bushes, and small trees usually less than 2.5 meters (about 8 feet) tall, it is the characteristic vegetation of coastal and inland mountain areas of southwestern North America. [Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “chaparral.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Jan. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/plant/chaparral. Accessed 28 November 2022.]

[4] Salvia apiana Jeps.: Plants of the World Online: Kew Science. Plants of the World Online. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2022, from https://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:290024-2#distributions 

[5] Ott, D., Hühn, P., & Claßen-Bockhoff, R. (2016). Salvia apiana — a carpenter bee flower? Flora, 221, 82–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.flora.2015.12.008

[6] UpS Species At Risk List-2022. United Plant Savers. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2023, from https://unitedplantsavers.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/22229-UpS-Species-At-Risk-List-2022-rev-7-22.pdf   

[7] Krol, A., Kokotkiewicz, A., & Luczkiewicz, M. (2021). White Sage (salvia apiana) a ritual and medicinal plant of the Chaparral: Plant characteristics in comparison with other salvia species. Planta Medica, 88(08), 604–627. https://doi.org/10.1055/a-1453-0964

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Srivedavyasasri R, Hayes T, Ross SA. Phytochemical and biological evaluation of Salvia apiana. Nat Prod Res. 2017 Sep;31(17):2058-2061. doi: 10.1080/14786419.2016.1269096

[11] Krol, A., Kokotkiewicz, A., & Luczkiewicz, M. (2021). White Sage (salvia apiana)–a ritual and medicinal plant of the Chaparral: Plant characteristics in comparison with other salvia species. Planta Medica, 88(08), 604–627. https://doi.org/10.1055/a-1453-0964

[12] Santos FA, Rao VSN. Anti-inflammatory and antinociceptive effects of 1,8-cineole a terpenoid oxide present in many plant essential oils. Phyther Res 2000; 14: 240–244. doi:10.1002/1099-1573(200006) 14:4<240::aid-ptr573>3.0.co;2-x

[13] Takaishi M, Fujita F, Uchida K, Sawada Shimizu M, Hatai Uotsu C, Shimizu M, Tominaga M. 1,8-Cineole, a TRPM8 agonist, is a novel natural antagonist of human TRPA1. Mol Pain 2012; 8: 86. doi:10.1186/ 1744-8069-8-86

[14] Srivedavyasasri R, Hayes T, Ross SA. Phytochemical and biological evaluation of Salvia apiana. Nat Prod Res 2017; 31: 2058–2061. doi:10.1080/ 14786419.2016.1269096

[15] Afonso AF, Pereira OR, Fernandes ÂSF, Calhelha RC, Silva AMS, Ferreira ICFR, Cardoso SM. The health-benefits and phytochemical profile of Salvia apiana and Salvia farinacea var. Victoria Blue decoctions. Antioxidants 2019; 8: 241. doi:10.3390/antiox8080241

[16] Vulganová K, Maliar T, Maliarová M, Nemeček P, Viskupičová J, Balážová A, Sokol J. Biologically valuable components, antioxidant activity and proteinase inhibition activity of leaf and callus extracts of Salvia sp. Nov Biotechnol Chim 2019; 18: 25–36. doi:10.2478/nbec-2019-0004

[17] Dentali SJ. Potential anti-infective agents from Eriodictyon angustifolium Nutt. and Salvia apiana Jeps. [Dissertation] Ann Arbor: University of Ari- zona; 1991

[18] Cordova-Guerrero I, Aragon-Martinez OH, Díaz-Rubio L, Santiago FC, Serafín-Higuera NA, Pozos-Guillén A, Soto-Castro TA, Martinez-Morales F, Isiordia-Espinoza M. Actividad antibacteriana y antifúngica de un ex- tracto de Salvia apiana frente a microorganismos de importancia clínica. Rev Argent Microbiol 2016; 48: 217–221. doi:10.1016/j.ram.2016. 05.007

[19] Perry, N., Houghton, P., Jenner, P., Keith, A., & Perry, E. (2002). Salvia lavandulaefolia essential oil inhibits cholinesterase in vivo. Phytomedicine, 9(1):48-51. Retrieved from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1078/0944-7113-00082

[20] Petersen D. (2016). Aromatherapy Essential Oils for Memory Retention. Conference Presentation Asian Aroma Conference (AAIC) Delhi, India.

[21] Tildesley, N., Kennedy, D., Perry, E., Ballard, C., Savelev, S., Wesnes, K., et al. (2003). Salvia lavandulaefolia (Spanish Sage) enhances memory in healthy young volunteers. Pharmacology Biochemistry And Behavior, 75(3):669-674. Retrieved from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/s0091-3057(03)00122-9

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