One of the most recognizable fragrances in aromatherapy, sandalwood is used most widely in the perfumery industry to the tune of hundreds of tons of oil each year. In Eastern cultures, sandalwood appears in holy ceremonies and religious rituals. It marks significant events like weddings and births, as decorations and ceremonial rites.
Derived from the Santalum genus, sandalwood trees have been grown all over the world. Usually, Santalum album out of the Indonesian region is the most commonly utilized species for essential oil production. Outside of that region, the US carries the highest demand for sandalwood, and it has been increasing, driving the price up, as well.
It's an evergreen tree grown for the heart wood, which is harvested after heavy rains once the tree is a certain size. The inner wood is powdered, then steam distilled for essential oil extraction. With increasing demand meeting a difficult cultivation process and potentially unsustainable harvesting practices, we could ultimately lose sandalwood altogether. (1)
The maturity of the tree at harvest and the depth of color affect the specific composition of the essential oil that is extracted. Of the molecules that comprise sandalwood, the most notable is santalol, making up 80-90% of sandalwood oil. (2)
If harvested too young, the santalol amounts will be on the lower end, affecting the expected medicinal properties. When using sandalwood, it's important to trust your source, both to know what to expect from it and to trust them to use ethical and sustainable methods.
Health Properties of Sandalwood Oil
While many essential oils come from the leaves and flowers of plants and, therefore, share similar components, sandalwood is different. It comes from the heart of the tree and boasts primarily varieties of santalol molecules. Still, they are powerful substances, and the beneficial effects aren't decreased in the lack of variety.
1. Sedative Effects
Traditional Asian remedies often include sandalwood for anti-anxiety effects, and science is confirming these abilities. In 2011, researchers from Japan isolated santalol to observe its effects on the CNS system of rats. After administration, they monitored sleep, motor activity, and other components of relaxation, ultimately confirming santalol and sandalwood's traditional sedative use. (3)
2. Antioxidant Ability
As with many essential oils, sandalwood carries strong antioxidant abilities. One major benefit of antioxidant substances is their effect on metabolic conditions, as noted by a 2013 study published in the journal Phytomedicine that evaluated the antioxidant benefits of diabetic mice. They concluded that, “it was observed that the beneficial effects of α-santalol were well complimented, differentially by other constituents present in sandalwood oil, thus indicating synergism in biological activity of this traditionally used bioresource.” (4) What other constituents sandalwood oil contains, santalol brings out the best in them!
3. Alternative Anti-Inflammatory
Also related to metabolic and chronic illness, inflammatory conditions are pervasive in our country. Last summer, Canadian scientists took pure a-santalol and b-santalol extracts and weighed them against ibuprofen's abilities. The results were so promising that they called for topical applications as a comparable anti-inflammatory agent. (5)
4. Skin Tonic Abilities
Sandalwood oil also carries several properties that are beneficial in skin care, from antiviral properties protecting against infectious intruders, to antiseptic abilities to help keep skin clean and clear. (6, 7) Its significant astringent ability helps to tighten and freshen skin, as well.
5. Anticancer Potential
In lab tests, sandalwood essential oil seems to exhibit protective abilities against various kinds of cancer cells. (8) The journal Carcinogenesis detailed the potential that sandalwood and santalol show when, in 2004, a study demonstrating skin cancer cell growth inhibition and death (apoptosis) thanks to a-santalol. (9) Prostate cancer cells met a similar fate in 2012's Phytomedicine edition, again showing apoptosis by a-santalol. (10) Whatever researchers uncover about essential oils and potential cancer prevention and treatment, I'm certain that I want these substances in my body if cancer cells were ever to try to crop up!
6. Reduce Anxiety
We've already seen its sedative effects, and small sample tests have shown promising anti-anxiety results from massage. (11) Just a small amount of sandalwood essential oil can help to calm anxious, restless nerves in any situation. Not only do I recommend it for relaxation when it's time to sleep, but anxious situations may benefit from its calming effects, as well. For a quick, DIY diffuser, add a drop or two to the air conditioner vents of your car to circulate the stress relieving ability.
7. Treat and Protect Skin
Make the most of antiseptic, astringent, and protectant effects of sandalwood by including a drop or two in your lotion and cleanser preparations. As a potential skin cancer protective agent, especially consider it on facial remedies, since our faces are exposed to so much sun on a daily basis.
While sandalwood has been reported in rare cases of reaction or sensitization, overall it is proving itself as a safe oil with antimicrobial and anticancer benefits setting it apart. (14) Use common sense and caution as with any other oil, but pay extra attention to sourcing and frivolous use that may threaten this wellness gem.
Sandalwood in the Home
Because of the overuse and underproduction of sandalwood, we must use extra caution to not only source it well, but to use it well. Such clear health benefits cannot be ignored, so integrate sandalwood into your wellness routine with care and respect for our natural resources. Here are some go-to ways to use sandalwood and maximize its effect.
As an antiseptic and antiviral, utilizing sandalwood in cleaning and home diffusion may help to minimize the disease-causing substances in your home. The herpes simplex virus, even drug resistant strains, is susceptible to sandalwood – along with thyme, which is another excellent antiviral oil (12) – as is the flu virus! Beta-santalol (b-santalol) comes to the forefront in this case, when Indian researchers demonstrated significant success against influenza strains, prompting further research into essential oils and the flu. (13) Include a few drops of sandalwood in your DIY cleaning preparations to inhibit viruses, or diffuse throughout the home to clear the air, particularly when you have lots of interaction with others who may bring viral exposure.