Photo © Steven Foster
The two main species used to produce sandalwood oil are Santalum album (East Indian sandalwood) and S. spicatum (Australian sandalwood).1 S.album is a small evergreen tree2 that grows to 30 feet.1 With fragrant wood and ovate leaves, the tree has dull yellow to maroon flowers followed by dark red to black fruits.1 Native to Ceylon, India, Indonesia, and their surrounding islands, S. album grows wild on Celebes and on the Portuguese island of Timor.3 East Indian sandalwood oil is obtained from S. album by steam or water distillation of the heartwood (the innermost and oldest wood).2 S. spicatum is a small west Australian wild tree.3 Australian sandalwood oil is obtained from this tree by a combination of solvent extraction and steam distillation of the wood.3
History and Cultural Significance
Arab apothecaries in eighth century Baghdad owned private drug stores in which Indian sandalwood was a commonly used herb.4 There are depictions, in Arabic writings and pictures, of apothecaries trading with traveling merchants for the precious sandalwood.4 In Chinese medicine, East Indian sandalwood oil was used internally to treat stomachache and vomiting.2 The oil was also used in Europe for fevers, pains, and strengthening the heart.2
With a history of use of over 4000 years, East Indian sandalwood is one of the oldest known perfume materials.3 Only within the last century has it been found in the American and European perfume industries. Australian sandalwood oil is also used in perfumery for its balsamic-woody fragrance.3
East Indian and Australian sandalwood oil are both used extensively in detergents, soaps, creams, and lotions, and as incense for their fragrance.2
There are currently very few studies being done on sandalwood.5 One published study investigated sandalwood oil in the form of a patch applied to the skin instead of as an inhaled fragrance. The study focused on whether sandalwood had physiological and behavioral arousal properties.5
East Indian sandalwood is currently an endangered botanical species.6 The Indian government has placed certain restrictions on it, such as prohibiting removal of sandalwood trees until they reach 30 years of age and limiting exportation of the tree and oil.6 These restrictions have forced prices up and, unfortunately, have led to an emergence of sandalwood oil being sold to distillers on the black market.7
Although thought by some to be inferior to East Indian sandalwood, Australian sandalwood is becoming more commercially viable due to the dwindling availability of the Indian species.8 Australian sandalwood is being increasingly commercially produced in Western Australia. The hope is that science will discover new methods to increase heartwood, and thus increase sandalwood oil production.8
1 Bown D. The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.; 2001.
2 Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics. 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 1996.
3 Arctander S. Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin. Allured Publishing Corporation: Carol Stream , IL; 1994.
4 Bender G. A Pictorial History of Herbs in Medicine and Pharmacy. HerbalGram. 1998; No. 42:33-47.
5 Hongratanaworakit T, Heuberger E, Buchbauer G. Evaluation of the Effects of East Indian Sandalwood Oil and Alpha Santalol on Humans after Transdermal Absorption. Planta Med. Jan 2004;70(1):3-7.
6 Floreno A. Sandalwood Cutting Rules May Limit India Oil Supply. Chemical Marketing Reporter. October 31, 1995.
7 Floreno A. Sandalwood Oil Faces Trouble as Crop Is Destroyed By Fire. Chemical Marketing Reporter. March 31, 1997;23.
8 Nott T. Sandalwood. The Western Australian Sandalwood tree (S. spicatum). Available at: http://sres.anu.edu.au/associated/fpt/nwfp/sandalwood/Sandal.html. Accessed March 24, 2005.