Sandalwood Continues to be Highly Prized

Historical and Current Uses

Sandalwood, or Santalum, is identified as belonging to the Santalaceae family. This small tree reaching to about 10 meters is indigenous to Indonesia, the Pacific Islands, Australia and India. Much of the commercial production of sandalwood comes from Santalum album (India) and Santalum spicatum (Australia). Although both of these species are considered true sandalwoods, there are other species commonly called sandalwood that are not included in the Santalum genus and are therefore have differing compositions. These unrelated plants are sometimes used as fillers to reduce the price of the increasingly expensive Santalum oil yet are considered of inferior quality. Research has identified a wide spectrum of applications for both the simple essential oil and its active components. Traditional and ceremonial uses of sandalwood continue to be an important part of cultures around the world.

Sandalwood from the Mysore region (known as “sandalwood city”) of southern India is generally considered to be of the highest quality sandalwood available, providing great commerce for this region of India. Of the traditional areas in Southeast Asia where sandalwood is found, India has been the front runner in creating plantations in which to continually harvest Sandalwood (The Australian Government has also set up reserves as well). Trade and harvest of Indian sandalwood is under strict regulation and the trees themselves are under government protection; only the government of India is permitted to own the trees. To produce commercially valuable sandalwood with high levels of fragrance oils, harvested Santalum trees are recommended to be at least 40 years of age, but 80 or above are preferred. However, trees at 30 years of age are still harvested but considered of inferior quality.

Much of the valuable wood is found in the roots of sandalwood and thus harvested by uprooting the entire tree versus cutting it at the trunk. In the last few years alone, the price of sandalwood has skyrocketed, mainly due to rising demand and limited supply. Increased demand has mainly come from the perfume and aromatherapy industry. Sandalwood essential oil and paste is used in Indian and Chinese medicine and of course aromatherapy botanical medicine. The perfume industry covets this oil for its ability to blend well with other perfume oils; hence, it is used extensively in hundreds of cosmetic products.

Such value is found not only in its iconic-making wood, medicinal oil and fragrance but also in it religious and ceremonial value. In the Buddhist tradition, sandalwood incense is a popular offering to the Buddha and its scent is believed to have transformative qualities while in meditation. Chinese and Japanese religions also use sandalwood incense in their worship and various ceremonies. One of the oldest religions, Zoroastrianism (thought to be originally from Iran), burns the sandalwood in their sacred fire temples.

Sandalwood Used to Fight Anti-microbial Bacteria

In late December of 2009 a length article by the Associated Press entitled “Pressure Rises to Stop Antibiotics in Agriculture” reported on rapidly emerging bacteria that are resistant to current antibiotics from supposed misuse of antibiotics in the agriculture industry. It was all over the internet in a matter of days. The article provides quotes from professors, researchers as well as government agencies all expressing deep concern and even alarm at the rate of microbial resistance to standard treatment. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) web page includes recent studies regarding antimicrobial resistance in Escherichia coli and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MSRA) (both of which cause great harm to humans and animals alike) linked to heavy uses in food agriculture. This scientifically sound web site also provided a press conference statement (way back in 2001) by Margaret Mellon, Ph.D., director of UCS Food and Environment Program stating that 70% of total antibiotic production is devoted to non-therapeutic uses in the cattle, swine and poultry industry. It seems plausible that over the last nine years since this press release, microbes have developed an armor of resistance to antibiotic treatments.

Hospital-acquired infections and antibiotic-resistant bacteria continue to be major health concerns worldwide. In a recent study conducted by the University of Keil, Germany in their Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery (Journal of Cranio-Maxillo-Facial Surgery 2009 Oct.; 37(7): 392-7) researchers found that sandalwood oil in vitro demonstrated an effective treatment for antibiotic-resistant strains as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) (a cause of severe soft tissue, bone or implant infections in hospitals) and antimycotic (antifungal)-resistant Candida species. Another microbe that plagues humans is Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). This Gram-negative bacterium is thought to be harbored by over 50% of the world’s population and is strongly linked to the development of duodenal and gastric ulcers as well as stomach cancer. A 2006 study by the Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Tokushima, Japan (Journal of Natural Products 2005 Jun; 68(6): 819-24) found that the crude extract as well as isolated compounds of sandalwood essential oil showed antibacterial activity against H. pylori.

Additional Applications

The Australian and Indian Santalum species, found to be similar in chemical composition, are known by aromatherapists to have such therapeutic properties as anti-inflammatory, antiphlogistic (reduces fever), antiseptic (as mentioned above), antispasmodic (relieves muscle spasms), astringent, carminative (relieves flatulence), demulcent (reduces irritation), diuretic (soft and soothing to skin), emollient, expectorant, as a sedative and general tonic. Their principle chemical constituents are alpha-santalol and beta-santalol. According to a study conducted by the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and South Dakota University (Anticancer Research 2007 Jul-Aug; 27(4B): 2185-8) application of the chemical compound alpha-santalol prevents UVB-induced skin tumor development in mice. Sandalwood is also thought to help alleviate the symptoms of depression as reported by the University of Maryland Medical Center (

Summing It Up

It is rather evident that the value of sandalwood extends across centuries and continents. It is revered by various religions, scientists, aromatherapists and perfume enthusiasts alike. What is remarkable is that uses of plants and their essential oils are bringing such world-wide engagement as their promising applications are uncovered in scientific research. A need for alternatives to conventional antibiotics as well as insecticides is clear. As less-than amiable agriculture practices surface and resistance to current antimicrobials increase, it is apparent that humankind will revert back to solutions found in nature and perhaps make a more diligent effort to conserve the very earth that sustains us.

Besides their wonderful aromas, many oils have profound health benefits, such as anticancer and antibacterial actions.

Share This Post

Post Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.