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Sandalwood - The Great Receiver

Sandalwood is very interesting and controversial. Is it endangered? Is it legal? Is it even ethical to use? What is it exactly, where does it come from and what does it do? Since this is one of my favorite essential oils, I would like to write a bit about it and perhaps clarify a few things for myself.

Santalum album is a parasitic, evergreen tree growing primarily in South Central India, in the dry forests of the Deccan plateau, which rolls through the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. If you were looking at a map, this would be approximately a 200-kilometer circle using the City of Bangalore as its crux. The finest wood and oil has traditionally come from Mysore, the fabled City of Sandalwood although there is some beautiful oil now coming (in limited quantities) out of the forests of Tamil Nadu. The tree is modestly sized, unobtrusive, like its scent, growing to a height of 60 feet or so and with a girth of 4-5 feet. It grows easily, weathers drought fairly well, and is forgiving of soil inconsistencies, subsisting well in clay, laterite, sand, loam and very stony, rocky soil. In fact, trees growing in this kind of soil are known to have more highly scented wood. Technically, the sandal family grows best in undulating terrain between 30¬ò North and 40¬ò south where temperatures vary between 20C and 45C and there is moderate rainfall of 600mm to 1600mm. The Sandalwood genus can be found around the world including Indonesia, Australia, (S. rubrum,) the South Pacific (S. austrocaledonicum,) and even Chile, Hawaii and the Ogawara Islands of Japan. This does not include West Indian Sandalwood, Amyris balsamifera which belongs to the same family as citrus, Rutaceae.

Due to over-enthusiastic harvesting, this tree is now diminishing in abundance. Traditionally, only mature trees (at least 60 years old) should be harvested. This is logical in every way. Besides allowing the entire life cycle to occur, immature trees lack a high oil concentration and the oil they do contain is of a lower quality than that of a mature tree. However, logic seldom gets in the way when there is quick money to be made, and, despite the strict laws in India governing the sandalwood harvest, poaching regularly occurs. Also, even though Santalum album in India fruits twice a year- in April-May and October-November, the new saplings that spring up so eagerly during the monsoon are often destroyed in seasonal forest fires. Another threat to the happiness and abundance of the Sandalwood tree are spike diseases, which are odd, invasive attacks by a mycoplasma type organism. With the progression of this disease, the new leaves become smaller and narrower, more pointed and fewer, until they are nothing more than sparsely scattered spikes. Of course, without leaves, there can be no life, and so the tree dies pitifully, after 2-3 years. As they say, it's a jungle out there, and the sandalwood trees who survive the fires and evade the infections have also got to find themselves some protection, whether anonymity or concerned humans. It is interesting to note that all sandalwood trees in India belong to the government. If the tree sits on private land, the farmer is entitled to 75% of its value for growing and protecting it, once it is harvested.

Agmark status: All genuine agricultural exports that meet certain governmental quality standards carry the Agmark stamp. This does not just apply to sandalwood but to foods such as honey as well. With Sandalwood, this is supposed to indicate that it was not poached but legally harvested and exported. In reality, this is loosely defined. Unfortunately, it is possible for anyone to purchase an agmark stamp, so it's not really an indication of origin or quality. Foreigners are no longer allowed to participate in the log auctions and cannot export sandalwood from India. This is an attempt by the government to control their shrinking sandalwood stocks. However, there is plenty of exporting, much of it illegal. It is also important to note that sandalwood is not in danger of extinction. It has been over harvested to be sure, and is being belatedly replanted. But since these trees will not ready to yield for another 30-40 years, we are looking at a severe and prolonged sandalwood shortage, as it becomes a precious oil on a par with jasmine and rose.

Chemically, sandalwood looks like this: ±-santalol min. 50%, alpha-santalol min. 19-30%, ± and beta-santalenes appx 2-10%. As the tree matures, the santalol levels increase. There may also be trace amounts of carboxylic acid, borneol, santalone, furfurol and tersantalal, among others. Many of the constituents of sandalwood are just now being identified.

Sandalwood is steam or water distilled from the heartwood and roots (not the bark,) with a mature tree yielding about 60 kilos of oil. Aromatherapy accounts for only a tiny percentage of world sandalwood use, with the bulk going into the perfume and toiletries industry. The wood is also carved into religious or touristic objects and exported. A very large percentage, usually including bark, sawdust and waste material goes into the incense market, sometimes after having already been distilled. Less commonly, the powder is used in beauty treatments to smooth the complexion and give the skin radiance.

Another interesting use is in attar making. Sandalwood is an excellent fixative, and has a long tradition of being the cradle for certain delicate scents which cannot stand on their own, usually due to extreme rarity and fragility. This translates into costliness. Traditionally, attars are made using a deg, one of the predecessors of the modern still. A deg is an ancient but still used distillation unit which delivers a superior oil in subtlety, complexity, and richness, as the distillation takes place at a very low temperature and for a long period of time. A deg distillation of sandalwood can take 10 days. To make an attar, flowers, earth or a combination of spices are placed in the main tub, and the receiver is filled with sandalwood oil, preferably itself deg distilled. The main tub is slowly heated and the aromatic molecules are gently coaxed over to, received, and held fast in the sandalwood bed.

One of the most common attars is rose (Gulab.) Attar of Roses has been prized for thousands of years as the ultimately luxurious and sensual perfume of goddesses, royalty and heroines. Another beautiful attar is that of Jasmine sambac (Mogra or Motia,) which is a jasmine slowly distilled (by deg,) into sandalwood oil. As a side note, this is also done occasionally without the sandalwood, making it not an attar but a Ruh, (i.e. a distilledjasmine oil,) and this is very rare and extremely expensive. Also, there is not much stability with this oil and the notes may change rapidly from rich floral to very green. Some other floral attars are Sona Champa (Michaela champaca,), Bakul (Mimopsus elengi,) Marigold (Tagetes minuta,) Kewda or Kadi (Pandanus odoratissimus,) Henna (Lawsonia inermis) and Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera varieties.) Examples of attars made from blends of herbs, flowers, woods, and spices are Shamama and Amberi, both of which are deep, rich, musky, exotic, oriental, sensual, and amber-like, of varying sweetness. Perhaps the most interesting and exciting attar is Mitti, made from the earth of Central India near the Perfumer's city of Kanauuj. Mitti is supposed to evoke the first rains of the new monsoon and the rebirth of all life, as the year's cycle continues. Within the gentle yet powerful cradle of sandalwood, the rich and hopeful earth notes slowly and subtly unfold in faithful reproduction of the season's first raindrops hitting the parched earth of Central India.


Aromatherapy uses



Sandalwood is recognized as having a pronounced effect on the genito-urinary tract and therefore is useful in urinary tract infections including cystitis (with bergamot and tea tree) and gonorrhea. Sandalwood is also a good pulmonary antiseptic and great for coughs, dry persistent ones in particular, as well as chronic bronchitis and sore throat. Good accompanying oils might include myrtle, frankincense, ravensara, thyme linalool or lemon. Sandalwood's relaxing properties mean that is particularly effective at night as it can help a cougher sleep better. Due to sandalwood's low toxicity level, this is an appropriate oil to use topically, in the bath, or as an inhalant. Sandalwood is also considered to be a digestive aid: blended with, for example, ginger, the spice oils or peppermint, it can help alleviate heartburn, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. Lastly, but certainly not in importance, is sandalwood's role as a sexual tonic. Besides its relaxing, calming properties, sandalwood, along with jasmine, may possibly have a hormonal effect as well. It is an outstanding aphrodisiac, equally useful in cases of frigidity and impotence.

Mind and Spirit:

Sandalwood is calming and useful as an aid to meditation. It is excellent for the stresses of a hectic life as it helps reduce tension, confusion, fear and obsessions. It is also widely known to be an excellent aphrodisiac and anti-depressant.ˆä Sandalwood helps us cut past ties, and move through and past grief, isolationist feelings, ego-centrism, and aggression. It opens us, allowing us to receive love, warmth and understanding. Sandalwood has the ability to bring us back to ourselves, to connect with the earth, to still the mind and allow creativity and our higher consciousness to flower. Sandalwood is one of the oldest and best known of all aromatics, having been in continuous use for over 4000 years. It runs like a common thread throughout many of the world's major religions: in Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, sandalwood forms the heart of their aromatic aspects, helping to realize and bring the divine within. It has long been considered an important meditation aid. Sandalwood powder has also been used throughout the medical systems of the world: Ayruvedic, Chinese and Tibetan. Sandalwood is also used in death rituals, especially in India. Ideally, one is immolated on a pyre of pure sandalwood and the ashes cast into the Holy Ganges, the Mother of India.


Sandalwood is good for all skin types, in particular dry and oily skin and acne. Even as it has moisturizing properties, it is a mild astringent and antiseptic. Sandalwood is also soothing for cracked, chapped and irritated skin. It is also recommended for mature and tired skin as well as stretch marks and scars.

Subtle Energies:

and related: Sandalwood links chakras 1 & 7, and 1, 4 & 5. It is mildly yang in character. Its body type is mesomorph. Its number is 6. Crystals are clear calcite, emerald, turquoise, and clear citrine. Elements are water, fire and air. Astrological signs are Saturn, Moon, Jupiter and Uranus.


Sandalwood is extremely useful in high-class perfumery for its wonderful ability to blend almost any notes. It is a very popular fixative, deep and rich, yet unobtrusive, soft and sweet. Its long, lingering and subtle aroma makes it a perfect base note. Sandalwood is the utmost in complimentary notes.

Chinese Medicine:

Sandalwood is cooling, decongesting and astringent. It is indicated, therefore, for problems of a hot, inflammatory and catarrhal nature, most often for problems of the intestines, lungs or genito-urinary tract. Examples are hot diarrhea, burning cystitis, and a harsh painful cough. Mentally, it will work best when a cooling action is needed against hot and agitated mental states. Commonly, Sandalwood is ground and used as a powder rather than an oil.

Ayruvedic Medicine:

Used for conditions of Pitta, heat, fire, as a cooling agent. Antifebrile, Anti-inflammatory and anti-infectious, here again Sandalwood is used ground to a paste.

Sandalwood is one of my favorite oils by virtue of its ancient sweetness. To breathe sandalwood is to be brought as in a dream, to sink into the warm, gentle, sweet and strong heart of this lovely tenacious tree, a graceful and fearless explosion of life from the stony earth of South India.

Copyright Trygve Harris 2001


Gabriel Mojay - Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit, 1996
Shirley & Len Price - Aromatherapy for Health Professionals, 1999
Salvatore Battaglia - The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, 1995
Patricia Davis - An A-Z Aromatherapy, 1988
Stephan Arctander - Perfumes and Flavorings of Natural Origin
Sylla Hangar - The Aromatherapy Practitioner's Manual
TED Case Studies - Sandalwood, 1997