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Ethical Witchcraft: Smoke Cleansing

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

Photo by Val Elkhorn

Cleansing with smoke is considered highly effective. You may watch it trail and see as it spreads that no area will remain untouched. The earliest recorded uses of smoke cleansing stem from 2500 BC, where the ancient Egyptians used incense to cleanse. At the same time, ancient Chinese people were also using incense to purify the air. In Christianity, Jesus was presented with frankincense and myrrh to burn. It is believed that the smoke carries prayers to the heavens. In all cultures, smoke is seen as a vehicle for offerings and intention to the divine and a method of cleansing. Indigenous American people called this smudging. Since I personally am not indigenous, I refer to the practice as smoke cleansing. Natives say that when non-natives refer to the practice as smudging it minimizes the cultural importance of this ritual. Non-native people are encouraged to find ecologically and culturally sustainable practices for their personal use.

How to Cleanse a Space with Smoke

It is crucial that there is a window or door opened; that way negative energies and entities have a place to be released and transmuted. When cleansing, it is important that an intention is set. It is recommended to start at the front door of the space and to move counter clockwise until complete.

Palo Santo

Holy Wood, which is what Palo Santo translates to, is used for the deepest of healing. Palo Santo is only indigenous to a few places and is very valuable to the indigenous tribes of Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay. They use it for medicinal purposes.

Palo Santo is exported widely and this leads to major deforestation. Palo Santo is endangered and it is illegal to trade or export without a permit. This means a lot of Palo Santo provided in the US is illegally sourced and distributed or fake.

Shamans in the trees’ native area teach that the tree must never be cut down, and must only be harvested when it naturally falls. Even if a company boasts these practices, be wary. Any other culture that attempts to capitalize and appropriate this precious resource is not necessarily ethical. The only responsible way to procure palo santo is directly purchasing it from an indigenous tribe, but this still negatively impacts the tree ecologically and the accessibility of the product to nearby Indigenous folk. Beware of western companies that use insidious branding to persuade shoppers. If you absolutely must source palo santo, do so from an ethical and local small business such as Ecuadorian Hands.


This herb is known for its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. Not only does sage clear the negative energy, but it removes most bacteria from the air. Sage is a great bug repellant. Metaphysically, sage is known for its healing, cleansing, and protection properties.

White sage is a sacred Indigenous American herb and should be left for indigenous use. The commercialization of white sage is wreaking havoc on the crop. This also drives up the cost, making it less accessible to those who need it. White sage is also considered over-harvested or endangered. I recommend growing or purchasing another variety of sage. I am personally experimenting with purple sage currently, I find it to be effective and aromatic.

It takes a lot of privilege for us to enjoy smoke cleansing, and it’s important to remember whose land we are on. It was illegal to smudge until 1978, and many Natives were jailed and murdered for practicing their tradition.


As it clears the negativity, rosemary brings a sense of calmness. Rosemary is known for clearing the mind until you can remember things. It’s a great herb for dream recall.


This herb is burned to place you in a trance-like state. Known for its assistance in divination, Mugwort is a favorite for people who meditate and wish to create a sacred space. This herb is great for dreaming and those who wish to work in the in-between worlds.


Most of us are aware of the calming effects of lavender. It relaxes our minds to allow us to key into our psychic ability while deepening our meditation.


A unique herb that is said to shine light upon the darkness. It brings divine energy into reality while holding strength in both the visible world and the unseen world. Mullein brings strength to breath. It feeds life and understands change.

This is an abridged list of my favorite herbs, but I recommend doing your own research. There are countless herbs, resins, woods, incense, and pines that can be dried and used for smoke cleansing. I recommend considering sustainability and morality by sourcing supplies that are native to your area and not over-harvested or used by a culture that is not yours.


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