Sandalwood Still As Important As Before

By Sandra O'Ryan

Historical and Current Uses

Sandalwood has been praised for centuries for its medicinal properties and ceremonial significance, as well as for its yellowish heartwood (middle of the tree). Taxonomically included in the Santalaceae family and the genus Santalum, this semiparasitic plant (partially use nutrients from other plants; sandalwood seedlings must first become attached to the roots of other plants) is distributed throughout southeastern Asia and the islands of the South Pacific. The most notable members of this group are Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) and Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicatum). Other plant species are sometimes substituted for sandalwoods, such as red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus in the pea family) but are not of the true genus and are of inferior quality. An authentic sandalwood tree grows to a height of about 10 meters (33 feet) and has leathery leaves in pairs, each opposite the other on the branch. Both tree and roots contain yellow aromatic oil; the scent of sandalwood oil persists in the wood for years and used for ornamental boxes and statues. The extracted essential oil is highly prized in Southeast Asia, Saudi Arabia and now the United States.

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.

Over the centuries, the use of sandalwood and its products have been an integral part of several religious cultures. It scent, either as an essential oil or ground as incense, is thought to bring one closer to the Divine. Hindus burn incense made from sandalwood oil in burial pyres and at funerals. It's also used in temples to remind people of the heavenly realms. Yogis in India use the oil to anoint each other during ceremonies and before meditation as well deity statues often made of sandalwood itself.

Sandalwood May Help with Antibiotic Resistance

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.

Uses Beyond Bacterial

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 (


The value of sandalwood in some cultures goes back centuries - from burning the fragrant incense in temples to using the oil in sacred ceremonies. In the commerce of today, sandalwood is highly prized by the perfume industry as well as those in aromatherapy. Recent science studies indicate that sandalwood and its principle component alpha-santalol have antiseptic as well antitumor capabilities. With the growing concern of antibiotic-resistant bacteria of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Candida in both hospital and public environments, serious investigation into the possible uses to of alternative therapies is well underway. Consideration of essential oils, and in this case Santalum album and Santalum spicatum are prime candidates for meeting modern medical needs. - 30540

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