Sandalwood oil is perhaps best known in the west as a sweet, warm, rich and woody essential oil used as is for a body fragrance, and as an ingredient in fragrant products such as incense, perfumes, aftershaves and other cosmetics. But the story of sandalwood, the divine essence, goes much further. Sandalwood has been a part of the religious and spiritual traditions of India since prehistory and has been effectively used in traditional medicine for thousands of years.
Sandalwood oil is in high demand today and the resource is dwindling.
The Sandalwood Tree: Sandalwood products are obtained from the sandalwood tree (Santalum album), which is a member of the Santalaceae family. It is known as white sandalwood, Mysore sandalwood, East Indian sandalwood, sandal, Chandan (Hindi), and tan xiang (Mandarin). The white sandalwood is an evergreen tree which grows to 50 feet and naturally occurs in Eastern India in the states of Mysore, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnatika. It grows in dry and rocky environments and reproduces by suckers and by seeds. The environmental conditions required by this tree are rather strict and not completely understood. Due to a combination of the environmental requirements and the necessity of living off a host plant, Sandalwood is not easy to propagate. Even so, it has long been cultivated in other Southeast Asian locations, including Indonesia where some good quality Sandalwood essential oil is produced.
Sandalwood is a parasitic tree and obtains nutrients from several other plant species. While there are other species of sandalwood, including red sandalwood, Australian sandalwood (S. spicatum) and New Caledonian Sandalwood (S. austrocaledonicum), these are quite different from true Santalum album and have very different properties and fragrances. There is another tree that yields an essential oil which is sometimes called West Indian sandalwood or amyris (Amyris balsamifera) – it is from Haiti and other islands in the West Indies and is not related to true sandalwood. It is, however, sometimes used as a sandalwood substitute, especially in products such as sandalwood soap, where using the true sandalwood would be too expensive.
Extraction Methods: The heartwood is the most precious part of the Sandalwood tree, and the best heartwood comes from the roots. Sapwood yields a lower quality oil. Older trees have more heartwood, and so are more highly prized. For each extraction method, the quality of the final sandalwood oil will depend upon the quality of the wood, the length of distillation time, and the experience of the distiller. These days, Sandalwood essential oil is extracted primarily by steam distillation, a process in which super heated steam is passed through the powdered wood. The steam helps to release and carry away the essential oil that is locked in the cellular structure of the wood. The steam is then cooled and the result is sandalwood hydrosol and sandalwood essential oil.
Hydro-distillation is the traditional method of extraction. It is fairly rare these days, yet it is said that this method yields an oil with a superior aroma. Instead of having steam pass through the powdered wood, in a hydro-distiller the powder is allowed to soak in water. A fire from below the vessel heats the water and carries off the steam which is allowed to cool. The Sandalwood oil is then removed from the top of the hydrosol.Adulteration of Sandalwood Oil: Sandalwood oil is one of the most-often adulterated of oils. This is due to the high demand, the high price and the scarcity of the real product. Adulteration comes in many forms in the field of essential oils, such as dilution of a genuine essential oil with a cheap carrier oil or solvent, adding synthetic aroma chemicals to an essential oil, or reconstructing an oil with aroma chemicals (natural or synthetic). Dilution of an oil can be easily performed at any time by almost anyone from the distiller to the consumer. Adulteration and reconstruction of essential oils, however, is often done in the labs of the essential oil brokers. Some adulterations are easy to detect; on the other hand, adulteration performed by an expert with the right materials can be very difficult to detect.
Aromatherapy Use: Sandalwood oil has a long history of use as a traditional medicine. It is part of traditional medical systems such as Chinese medicine and the Indian healing science known as Ayurveda. It has been used in a wide variety of applications such as genital and urinary infections, digestive complaints, dry coughs, persistent coughs, throat irritations, laryngitis, nervous disorders, depression and anxiety. Sandalwood is used widely and effectively in skin care, being useful for dry, cracked and chapped skin, rashes and acne. It is suitable for all skin types and is non toxic.