Redolent with exotic allure, sandalwood has been prized since pre-Biblical times for its woodsy, spicy fragrance, which lingers long after others have faded. Although traded for use as a yellowish, fine-grained wood, which retains its fragrance far longer than other aromatic woods, sandalwood is primarily harvested for its essential oil.
The painfully slow-growing semi-parasitic trees of the genus Santalum yield an irresistible essential oil that drives global demand. Regarded as sacred in India, the increasingly rare trees must mature for 60 to 80 years and beyond before they may be harvested for the extraction of the highest quality oil.
Incense, perfume and more
Sandalwood plays a prominent role in the religious ceremonies of a number of Eastern religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. The enticing aroma of incense made from sandalwood is believed to help induce a focused, relaxed state during meditation. For centuries, sandalwood essential oil has been treasured as an important ingredient in perfumes and incense. In perfumery, sandalwood oil provides earthy base notes and acts as a fixative for other scents. Natural perfumes known as attars depend on sandalwood oil for the distillation of other components.
Although several species exist, including one that is native to Australia, true sandalwood comes from the Indian sandalwood tree (Santalum album). Enjoyed for its fragrance, sandalwood oil is also prized for its healing properties. For instance, sandalwood has been used for centuries among practitioners of Ayurveda, the ancient healing system of India, where it is used to treat all types of skin disorders, and to alleviate depression and anxiety. It’s also important in Chinese traditional medicine. Modern aromatherapy makes liberal use of sandalwood essential oil to induce relaxation. The essential oil is also incorporated into many cosmetics, possibly providing some antibiotic protection, while also imparting a subtle, pleasing woodsy fragrance.
Possible antibiotic/antiviral activity
Modern scientists have shown that sandalwood essential oil contains a complex mixture of potentially beneficial compounds. Chief among them is alpha-santalol. One or more of these compounds evidently possess natural antibacterial and antiviral properties. When applied topically, it is reputed to aid in alleviating dry, chapped skin, and to control outbreaks of acne or rash. Research shows that the oil prevents the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1 and HSV-2) from replicating, suggesting that it may be useful as a treatment for “fever blisters,” or lesions around the mouth, which are caused primarily by herpes simplex virus-1. There is presently no cure for infection with either strain of herpes simplex virus.
Studies suggest that not all of sandalwood’s relaxing effect can be attributed to its pleasing aroma alone. In one small study, essential oil was applied to volunteers’ skin. Subjects breathed through masks, to avoid smelling the unique fragrance of the oil. Investigators monitored a number of subjects’ physiological parameters, including heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.
Although subjects reported feeling alert, their bodies told the opposite story, registering changes consistent with healthful relaxation. By being absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream, sandalwood appears to have had an impact on various indicators of stress, including blood pressure and heart rate, among other markers.