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The plant itself is one of many species of evergreen tree, growing as high as 50 feet tall. It naturally occurs in Eastern India, in rocky regions that tend to be dry. Sandalwood is parasitic, taking many of its nutrients from host plants, which makes it hard to propagate the plant to other climes, though it has been successfully grown in other areas of Southeast Asia.
Its desirable odor makes sandalwood in high-demand around the world, who prize the scent for use in everything from high-end perfumes and skin creams to incense and bath additives. Topical applications are common, but most treatments using this oil are aromatherapy related.
Sandalwood use stretches back to Chinese and Tibetan culture as early as 700 B.C. The wood was burned for its fragrant smoke, and the oil was extracted for medicinal purposes for millennia. The modern history of this essential oil is rather shorter. In the 1840s, sandalwood was Western Australia’s biggest export. Essential oil from the tree first began being extracted in 1875, but it faltered as an export around the turn of the century and did not reach wide popularity until it resurged in the 1990s among aroma therapists, meditation practitioners and others in North America and Europe.
Most of the sandalwood on the world market today is of the species Santalum album, and it is prized by perfumers and aroma therapists for its pungent, woody scent. Other species have variances in fragrance and santalol content, but they are seeing renewed interest because of the high demand and inflexible supply of Santalum. Australian sandalwood oil, from the species Santalum spicatum, has a very similar aroma and chemical makeup to its Indian cousin and its production is steadily increasing.
Like all essentials, the way sandalwood essential oil is extracted from its plant is through distillation. Sandalwood trees are harvested after the monsoon season, uprooted and the wood is cut into billets. It’s the heartwood of the tree, along with the roots, that contains the highest concentration of oil, though sapwood can also be used to extract low-concentration oils. Billets of the heartwood are chipped and then ground into powder, which is then steam-distilled for several hours to extract the oil.
Most of the oil comes from the roots, which have the highest concentration. The older the tree (30–50 years) typically the more oil it contains, though trees are harvested as early as 15 years. The concentration of santalols is also lower in younger trees, so producers usually avoid harvesting them, though demand is high.
An alternative extraction method, using CO2, does not use water or steam. High-pressure carbon dioxide acts as both a gas and a liquid, allowing the aromatic components of the sandalwood to escape without the use of heat or steam. The resulting concentration is removed, filtered and processed. The end result has a darker color and a different odor than oil obtained through traditional distillation.
The difference between the two processes results in a different chemical makeup of the final product. The sandalwood oil that results from CO2 extraction is closer to the state of the oil as it naturally exists in the living plant. The heat and moisture of steam-distillation causes changes to the aromatic chemicals within the oil. With the CO2 process, the oil retains a stronger smell, adding different tones to the sandalwood aroma that so many people are used to.
Often, sandalwood oil is pre-diluted in a mixture with other oils as a finished product. Demand has become so high that synthetic alternatives have even become a viable alternative for perfumes and low-cost beauty products. Check before you buy to ensure you’re getting an adequate concentration. Otherwise, you may not get the fragrant benefits that you would from a higher purity.
Synthetic and other species of sandalwood have risen in popularity primarily because the cost of the oil keeps going up. The primary species of the tree is under significant pressure, making it a less sustainable source of the oil. The Indian government has begun placing restrictions on the cutting of sandalwood, but the demand is so high that a black market drives an illicit trade and destruction of existing sandalwood forest. The rapidly growing population of Southeast Asia also puts pressure on land-use, and Sandalwood groves are often cut down to make room for farmland, housing and other production.
This sustainability problem introduces challenges for consumers because it means that the essential oil is often diluted and compromised by the time it reaches market. Prices rise rapidly for this resource, leading to young trees being cut and processed, thus resulting in low-purity essential oils on the market.
Sandalwood oil has a sweet, woody aroma, though the scent can vary depending on the species of wood the oil comes from and the region in which it was grown. Because it is often combined with other essential oils, scents can vary depending on how diluted the pure oil is and with which other oils it is combined.
Speaking of scent leads us to the question of the quality or purity of this essential oil. Purity or potency is measured by the level of santalol, an alcohol that is the active ingredient in the oil. Pure sandalwood oil contains more than 90% sesquiterpenic alcohols, 50-60% of which is tricyclic alpha-santalol. Beta-Santalol comprises 20-25%. Also, many suppliers dilute this essential oil with other solvent oils, add synthetic scent chemicals to mask the low quality and sold under an inaccurate lable.
This oil’s medicinal properties are related mostly to its aromatherapy applications. One study investigating East Indian sandalwood oil found that, when used as an inhalant, it elevated pulse rates, skin conductivity and blood pressure when compared to a placebo. People in the study reported increased alertness, better focus, decreased stress and improved mood. It’s no surprise then that aroma therapists have been using it to treat mood disorders like depression, anxiety and nervous disorders.
Sandalwood oil is frequently used in Ayurvedic medicine, a form of traditional Indian medicine, to treat both somatic and mental disorders. It’s also employed as an inhalant to fight bronchitis, laryngitis and other respiratory ailments.
Sandalwood is a non-irritating essential oil, but it should
be diluted or it can cause itching or discoloration. Applied to the skin in its diluted form, it can be used to treat oily or chapped skin. As an astringent, it makes a good addition to facial masks, massage oils, bath oils, aftershave and skin cream.
Aromatherapy: The most widely employed uses for sandalwood are, by far, as inhalants and incense. The oil often used as a fixative for other delicate fragrances, and in India it’s often used in the manufacture of traditional attars, with the delicate floral oils distilled directly into sandalwood oil.
Hair and Skin Care: Hair and scalp care can benefit from the addition of this oil, especially for dry or damaged hair. Add 3 to 4 drops to each ounce of hair rinse. A residue of the oil can remain on hair and skin while the rest vaporizes into your shower as an inhalant. Four or five drops of sandalwood into a steaming bath enhance relaxation and soothe away stress.
Respiratory Relief: If you have a dry cough, respiratory infection or laryngitis, applying diluted sandalwood oil directly to your chest and neck can aid with inhalation to help clear sinuses and relieve chest congestion.
Topical Applications: You can also mix oil and sandalwood oil to unscented skin cream for aromatherapy purposes. Mix two or three drops with a teaspoon of skin care oil or massage oil. Mixing it with other essential oils in the massage mixture, such as lavender or jasmine, is also recommended.
The benefits to your mental state and energy level make sandalwood the ideal accompaniment to your regular meditation and relaxation routines. Set some oil to warm on an appropriate vessel during a yoga or deep meditation session with soothing music. Isolation from noise and distraction can aid with relaxation and focus, too.
The type of sandalwood you prefer may vary, but there is no indication that one species or one formula containing the essential oil is better than another. We suggest you try several different mixtures, applications and oil types to determine the aroma that works best for your particular needs.