Sandalwood (Santalum album) has been considered to be a sacred gift for thousands of years. It is so highly valued that people have treasured it on the same level as pearls and ivory – it is considered with just that degree of importance. In quote after quote, from sacred Hindu writings to the Bible, sandalwood is praised with awe and respect as a precious material. Its scent and its healing qualities makes sandalwood one of the treasured ingredients in all of those used in skin care.
That very level of reverence has, in fact, driven sandalwood to the edge of endangerment. Not only its value as a source of healing oil, but its inherent slow-growing nature, have made it a protected type of tree. In recent decades, however, it has been brought back from the cusp of danger and saved as a renewed – and renewable – source of precious, healing oil.
The genus Santalum is a type of plant known as hemi-parisitic, meaning that the species can only grow on and dependant with other trees in order to live. Sandalwood trees use other trees as hosts, actually tapping into their root systems to share their ability to draw nutrients from the soil, although this process does not actually harm their host trees. The various species of Santalum are very slow-growing, taking decades to mature and produce a dense, heavy, tight-grained yellowish wood with a wonderful fragrance. The most famous species, Santalum album, commonly called Indian sandalwood, is native to South Asia, meaning the modern nations of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, where they grow in hot, semi-arid forests. Modern demand for S. album is so great that the governments of India and Nepal have both declared that all individual sandalwood trees are owned by the government and protected against tree pirates (yes, there are actually such people). Fortunately, there are other species with similar qualities, including Santalum ellipticum, S. freycinetainm, the Hawaiian species known locally as ’iliahi (botanically named Santalum paniculatum), S. haleakalae and the Australian species S. spicatum.
Why all the fuss about sandalwood? What, after all, is its intrinsic value? Certainly, the wood itself is not only attractive, but its tight, dense grain and inherent oil make it a natural material for long-lived and beautifully scented objects. Everything from beads, jewelry boxes and decorative screens to religious statues have been made from sandalwood; the material is not only able to accept detailed carving, but it retains its natural scent for decades, adding a special quality to whatever object from which it is made. It is the wonderful healing nature of the oil that is derived from the wood that makes sandalwood so precious. Mature trees, usually at least 15 years old, but often older, are carefully harvested and the heartwood is processed through steam distillation to produce the oil.
In the traditional Indian medical system, known as Ayurvedic medicine, sandalwood oil has been used as a healing scent to provide relief for both physical and mental complaints. Recent Western medical studies have proven that the scent of the active ingredients of sandalwood oil, known as alpha-santalol and beta-santalol, actually strengthen and increase the human heart rate and blood pressure. When applied topically, sandalwood oil has both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, making it a very effective treatment for skin infections and conditions such as acne. It can also calm and sooth irritated skin after shaving.
As a scent, sandalwood oil can be best described as having a balsamic, woody fragrance. Because it is so persistent, it is usually described as a “base note,” used as a foundation to which other, lighter “high notes” are added. Aromatherapists consider sandalwood oil to provide an uplifting, anti-depressant treatment.
Because Indian sandalwood, Santalum album, has been harvested so much, producers of sandalwood oil have looked for alternate sources of alpha-santalol and beta-santalol. An organic compound called isobornyl cyclohexanol (usually abbreviated as IBCH) has an aroma similar to santalol compounds, but does not have their healing power. Fortunately, other species of the genus Santalum do contain santalol. The Australian species, S. spicatum, shows great promise as an effective substitute for Indian S. album oil. Originally harvested from wild stands in the arid region of Western Australia, S. spicatum is now being commercially grown, providing this healing and wonderfully scented sandalwood oil to people around the world.