Introduction: Sandalwood oil is perhaps best known in the west as a sweet, warm, rich and woody essential oil used as is for a body fragrance, and as an ingredient in fragrant products such as incense, perfumes, aftershaves and other cosmetics. But the story of sandalwood, the divine essence, goes much further. Sandalwood has been a part of the religious and spiritual traditions of India since prehistory and has been effectively used in traditional medicine for thousands of years.
Sandalwood oil is in high demand today and the resource is dwindling. This has lead to several unfavorable results: 1) sandalwood oil is one of the most-often adulterated essential oils; 2) the cost of sandalwood oil is rising dramatically (about 25% per year); 3) due to the value of sandalwood oil, the trees are being illegally cut, leading to the waste of this precious resource as trees that are too young are cut, or trees are cut but the roots are left to rot (the roots are the most valuable part of the tree from which to extract the oil). Additionally, this illegal poaching has lead to several murders of forestry officials and other crimes indicative of the black market; 4) the resource is becoming scarce. The current production of sandalwood trees is not enough to meet the demand of consumers. The trees are difficult to propagate and must grow for at least 30 years to become suitable for harvesting. The forestry departments in India are regulating the amount of material that is cut and sold, but there are many demands for other use of the land – for example, cattle grazing, the need for wood to keep people employed, etc.
The situation regarding sandalwood trees is getting worse and this divine wood and the oil from it are becoming more and more precious. In the west, we need to look for ways to responsively use this resource and to reduce our dependence on it. We should be looking for substitute oils, using less in our formulas, and regarding sandalwood oil as something very rare to be used on special occasions.
The Sandalwood Tree: Sandalwood products are obtained from the sandalwood tree (Santalum album), which is a member of the Santalaceae family. It is known as white sandalwood, Mysore sandalwood, East Indian sandalwood, sandal, Chandan (Hindi), and tan xiang (Mandarin). The white sandalwood is an evergreen tree which grows to 50 feet and naturally occurs in Eastern India in the states of Mysore, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnatika. It grows in dry and rocky environments and reproduces by suckers and by seeds. The environmental conditions required by this tree are rather strict and not completely understood. Due to a combination of the environmental requirements and the necessity of living off a host plant, Sandalwood is not easy to propagate. Even so, it has long been cultivated in other Southeast Asian locations, including Indonesia where some good quality Sandalwood essential oil is produced.
Sandalwood is a parasitic tree and obtains nutrients from several other plant species. While there are other species of sandalwood, including red sandalwood, Australian sandalwood (S. spicatum) and New Caledonian Sandalwood (S. austrocaledonicum), these are quite different from true Santalum album and have very different properties and fragrances. There is another tree that yields an essential oil which is sometimes called West Indian sandalwood or amyris (Amyris balsamifera) – it is from Haiti and other islands in the West Indies and is not related to true sandalwood. It is, however, sometimes used as a sandalwood substitute, especially in products such as sandalwood soap, where using the true sandalwood would be too expensive.
Extraction Methods: The heartwood is the most precious part of the Sandalwood tree, and the best heartwood comes from the roots. Sapwood yields a lower quality oil. Older trees have more heartwood, and so are more highly prized. For each extraction method, the quality of the final sandalwood oil will depend upon the quality of the wood, the length of distillation time, and the experience of the distiller. These days, Sandalwood essential oil is extracted primarily by steam distillation, a process in which super heated steam is passed through the powdered wood. The steam helps to release and carry away the essential oil that is locked in the cellular structure of the wood. The steam is then cooled and the result is sandalwood hydrosol and sandalwood essential oil. Please click here for more information or to purchase Sandalwood Essential Oil.
Hydro-distillation is the traditional method of extraction. It is fairly rare these days, yet it is said that this method yields an oil with a superior aroma. Instead of having steam pass through the powdered wood, in a hydro-distiller the powder is allowed to soak in water. A fire from below the vessel heats the water and carries off the steam which is allowed to cool. The Sandalwood oil is then removed from the top of the hydrosol.
The CO2 extraction method is a new technique for extracting essential oils (and other constituents) from plant materials. It does not use water or steam. Instead CO2 (carbon dioxide) is used as a solvent. The CO2 is used under high pressure in which it exhibits a likeness to both a gas and a liquid (called a supercritical state) (click here for more information of CO2 extraction). These qualities allow the aromatic constituents of Sandalwood to be extracted without heat. The CO2 is then removed from the resulting extract which is then refined and filtered. The oil produced from this method has a different look and feel, as well as an odor profile different from Sandalwood oil obtained by steam or hydro-distillation.
CO2 extracted Sandalwood oil is more viscous and darker in color (it is a beautiful golden color) than steam distilled Sandalwood oil. CO2 extracted Sandalwood oil is also more resinous and is deeper in the woody aroma characteristics. It is not as sweet smelling as the steamed distilled oil and is slightly less spicy.
What causes the difference in the aroma of CO2 Sandalwood and steamed distilled Sandalwood oil is primarily due to the heat that is generated in steam distillation. The application of heat creates chemical changes in the aromatic constituents. This means that some of the original aromatic chemicals found in the wood are altered and in some cases are changed to new and different aromatic chemicals. This is why most essential oils smell different than the original plant material. CO2 extracts generally smell more like the original plant material because the aromatic chemicals found in the essential oil are not changed, as they are when they are distilled using heat. Please click here for more information or to purchase Sandalwood CO2 Extract.
This does not mean that Sandalwood CO2 extract is better than steam distilled Sandalwood essential oil. The two are different, and the difference is based on the nature of the chemicals which make up the oils. The CO2 extract aromas are closer to the aromas of the original plant materials. And this usually means that we like them far better than steamed distilled essential oils. However with Sandalwood, since both types of oils are so very different, and even though we have always loved steamed distilled sandalwood essential oil, we personally love and use both types of Sandalwood oil. One aspect of CO2 Sandalwood oil that we are excited about is the fact that it has a very strong and deep aroma. We find that we can use less of it a formula and still get the beautiful qualities of Sandalwood aroma. This is one way to help preserve the Sandalwood trees as a precious resource.
Adulteration of Sandalwood Oil: Sandalwood oil is one of the most-often adulterated of oils. This is due to the high demand, the high price and the scarcity of the real product. Adulteration comes in many forms in the field of essential oils, such as dilution of a genuine essential oil with a cheap carrier oil or solvent, adding synthetic aroma chemicals to an essential oil, or reconstructing an oil with aroma chemicals (natural or synthetic). Dilution of an oil can be easily performed at any time by almost anyone from the distiller to the consumer. Adulteration and reconstruction of essential oils, however, is often done in the labs of the essential oil brokers. Some adulterations are easy to detect; on the other hand, adulteration performed by an expert with the right materials can be very difficult to detect.
Aromatherapy Use: Sandalwood oil has a long history of use as a traditional medicine. It is part of traditional medical systems such as Chinese medicine and the Indian healing science known as Ayurveda. It has been used in a wide variety of applications such as genital and urinary infections, digestive complaints, dry coughs, persistent coughs, throat irritations, laryngitis, nervous disorders, depression and anxiety. Sandalwood is used widely and effectively in skin care, being useful for dry, cracked and chapped skin, rashes and acne. It is suitable for all skin types and is non toxic.
Use in Perfumery: Sandalwood oil is used extensively in natural perfumery as a harmonizing agent, base note and fixative. It helps to bring together other oils and adds a graceful aroma without taking away or overpowering other oils. It is a base note that helps to hold the scent of other lighter oils that tend to dissipate quickly. Sandalwood is central to the making of traditional attars in India. These natural perfumes are made by distilling essential oils of rare and/or difficult to distill plants into pure Sandalwood oil. This method of distilling unique oils into Sandalwood oil produces wonderful natural perfumes containing the essences of both plants combined in an almost magical way.
Spiritual Use: Sandalwood is used in many different ways in the spiritual traditions of the East. It is considered beneficial for meditation and for calming and focusing the mind. It is used as incense in temples or on personal altars to remind us of the fragrant realms of the heavenly realms. Deities of various kinds are fashioned from Sandalwood, then installed in a shrine or temple or placed upon the home altar. When Sandalwood was more abundant, the wood was used to construct parts of temples. Meditation beads or malas are made with Sandalwood in which a mantra or a personal prayer is repeated as the beads roll through the fingers. Sandalwood paste is used in many rituals including fire ceremonies, and Sandalwood paste is also used to anoint the forehead as a blessing, as well as to make a design symbolic to particular religious sects.
The oil of Sandalwood is used to anoint deities. In this way the fragrance which is emitted over time also helps to remind one of the spiritual realms. Sandalwood oil is one of the best fragrant aids to meditation. A drop or two can be applied to the forehead, the temples or rubbed between the eyebrows before beginning. In this way, it helps to set the stage and prepare the mind to begin its inward journey.
Which Sandalwood Oil Should I Buy? As in all of life, buy the Sandalwood oil that you prefer. If you do not require pure and natural oils, are using the oil for its fragrance (versus for its healing qualities), and you like the aroma of an oil that has synthetic Sandalwood in it, buy it. The best way to conserve Sandalwood trees is to stop using true Sandalwood oil. Again, if you are using Sandalwood oil for its fragrance, but prefer a natural product, it may be fine if the oil has been diluted in a carrier oil such as jojoba oil. Alternatively, you can try New Caledonian or Australian Sandalwood or West Indian Sandalwood (Amyris). Each of these should be labeled correctly and should be lower in price than a pure (true) Sandalwood oil. While most people assume that the Mysore Sandalwood is the best quality, it is not necessarily so. Some Mysore oils are weak (and likely diluted), and some Sandalwood from other states in India or from Indonesia are very fine indeed! Our suggestion is to try out several oils for yourself. If you are purchasing over the internet, buy Sandalwood oil samples first and compare.
Sandalwood oil is rare and expensive and the price is going up rapidly as the Indian government places tighter regulations on its production and export. If you find a Sandalwood that you truly like, buy enough to last you, and then use it sparingly. The oil will improve with age (unlike some other essential oils which degrade with age), and you will likely never be able to replace it. If you are using Sandalwood oil in making formulas, we suggest that you try the Sandalwood CO2 extract as it does make a better use of the resource by efficiently extracting the Sandalwood oil, as well as allowing you to use less of this precious essence.
Sources of Information
Eden Botanicals is grateful to the following sources which were used in preparing this web page. Please refer to these sources for more information on Sandalwood Essential Oil.
Holmes, Peter. 2001 Clinical Aromatherapy - Essays and Essential Oil Profiles. Snow Lotus Press, Boulder Co.
Keville, Kathy & Mindy Green. 1995. Aromatherapy - A Complete Guide to the Healing Arts, The Crossing Press, Freedom, CA.
Lawless, Julia. 1995. Essential Oils - The Complete Guide to the Use of Oils in Aromatherapy and Herbalism. Element Books, Boston, MA.
McMahon, Christopher. Fall/Winter 2000. Sacred Sandalwood - The Divine Tree, in Aromatic Thymes.
McMahon, Christopher. 2002, 2003. personal communication.
Schnaubelt, Kurt. 1998. Advanced Aromatherapy, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont.