Perfumer’s Nose: Sandalwood, The Aroma of Healing

sandalwood fan_MG_4751

Sandalwood Fan Copyright Elise Pearlstine

The lovely fan was hiding at the back of the shelf I was cleaning, behind an odd assortment of books, keepsakes, and seashells. It had fallen behind a little box full of old letters and was a bit dusty but in remarkably good shape. The delicate carving was all intact and the only thing missing was a fragrance, which I was sure it should have. I don’t remember where I got it, whether from my travels in Japan and Korea or from my parents. My father was in India during WWII and brought home some souvenirs so I imagine it could be from there. When I was looking for images of sandalwood carvings for this post, I found many images of sandalwood fans that matched this one. So, I am calling it a sandalwood fan and will put it somewhere safe.

Sandalwood essential oil is distilled from the heartwood of the tree and seems to be richest in the large trunk, larger limbs, and the roots. It is the sesquiterpene oils, mainly α- and ß- santalol, and a variety other aromatics that give the oil its characteristic fragrance. Production of the heartwood oil is not consistent among trees and may vary widely in trees in nearly identical growing conditions. Scientists hypothesize that both genetic and environmental factors are at play in the production of the oil. These oils most likely function as a defense against both herbivores and pathogens.


Sandalwood Illustration from Wikimedia Commons

It seems appropriate to talk here about the recent study of olfactory receptors in human skin and their ability to detect the odor of Sandalore – a synthetic sandalwood fragrance. An olfactory receptor is basically a cell designed to respond to a specific type of chemical, in this case an odor molecule. It turns out that there is a specific skin cell that is sensitive to Sandalore and Brahmanol (another sandalwood odorant) but not, actually, to natural sandalwood essential oil. The response from cells exposed to this odorant is to divide and migrate, important actions in the skin’s healing process. According to the New York Times, further human experiments found that skin healed 30% faster in the presence of Sandalore. The article also has a good explanation of the research and what olfactory receptors are. For those who like to go directly to the source, I have the original journal citation and a pdf.

The essential oil of sandalwood, usually Santalum album from India, is used in healing physically and is great for the skin but also is highly valued for its spiritual and emotional applications. It has long been used as sacred incense and is very useful as an aid to meditation, reminding us of heavenly realms. In perfumery it is a wonderful fixative and an amazing note all by itself. I know I am feeling pretty good about now after sniffing a bunch of sandalwood.

Upon raiding my ‘stash’ I found quite a variety of sandalwood oils, several from perfumery friends who have shared their favorites, along with some samples and then, of course, my treasured bottles. Sandalwood is one of those oils that ages beautifully and just gets smoother and more gorgeous over the years. Which is why there are many bottles hiding on my shelf.

For my evaluations I did the usual – dilute to 10% and sniff between 5 and 8 at a time while taking notes as the fragrance evolves. I can usually handle this pretty well without getting my nose confused or ‘tuned out’ to where I can’t distinguish the smell. Not so with sandalwood, it seems. After about 3 scent strips the rest of them had very little aroma. So I switched up the order in which I sniffed the strips, did fewer at a time, went outside for a while, and waited. One thing I have learned is that the aroma generally takes at least 10 minutes to evolve on the scent strip even for the topnotes. And, of course, the true beauty of any sandalwood comes late in the process and lingers…and lingers.

As usual, I did a bit of research with Arctander to find out how he described the fragrance. As those who read me regularly know, I find Arctander very valuable but I don’t always agree with him. This time I mostly found his description lacking in detail, simply calling the fragrance of sandalwood a ‘sweet-woody and almost animal-balsamic odor’ with little or no topnote. What I found could match that description but there was more. There was variation in the ‘woody’ from a sort of fine wood note in the better oils to a more cedarwood note in others. And it seemed to me that this could be called the topnote and it transitioned nicely into a woody-sandalwood heart note. The base note on nearly all my variations was the classic sandalwood fragrance.

Santalum album—what I looked for:

  • That woody note – in the better ones there was a fine wood that was reminiscent of cedar but a really good one. Sometimes it was Atlas and sometimes Virginia, sometimes just a really elegant wood note. This was in the first 15 minutes or so.
  • There was also a slightly different elegant wood note that appeared (or evolved) as the lovely, buttery sandalwood aroma began to develop. This is a note I would look for in the best of the sandalwood essential oils.
  • Then we get to the good part – that classic buttery, woody, very slightly animalic, smooth and lasting sandalwood scent.

What I did not look for:

  • Funk! I had a small sample from Papua, New Guinea that was completely different. It was smoky and musky and developed a definite underarm funk. It eventually developed a sort of strange, sweet sandalwood fragrance.
  • Too strong a Virginia cedar note. This was how I would characterize the ‘less good’ sandalwoods. I couldn’t say if this was due to adulteration or just to lower quality wood, poor distillation, or what.

Other Sandalwoods:

  • Santalum austrocaledonicum is from Vanuatu and New Caledonia. I reach for this for my aromatherapy blends and for some of my perfumery work. The two I had included one sort of ordinary sample that had a slight woody note but a good sandalwood dryout and a better sample with cedary notes and a nearly-fine-wood mid-tone as it dried out.
  • Santalum spicatum is the Australian species. The topnotes in distilled spicatum tend to be sharper and a bit bitter. Which actually means that a good Australian sandalwood is nice with citrus blends for example. I recently purchased some spicatum CO2 which is very nice with more of a linear sandalwood experience all the way through. I can see this one being quite useful.
  • Santalum paniculatum is from Hawaii and is usually referred to as Royal Hawaiian. This one is lovely and definitely has an elegant aspect to it. I find it to be very light in odor intensity and a bit more linear as it goes through drydown. At the end, however, there it is—that beautiful elegant sandalwood note.

Other Extractions:

  • SCO2—I would love some feedback if anyone has samples of album SCO2. Mine was completely different, very strong and what I would call a ‘fake’ sandalwood aroma. Quite musky and reminding me of something more synthetic. Since this is the only one I have and was given to me I can’t be sure.
  • CO2—as stated above, I have a lovely CO2 from Australia but it is missing some of the nice wood notes.
  • Absolute—also a bit more linear, having the ‘sandalwood’ notes all the way through and less of the other woody tones. There was a bit of a smell like I was getting from the SCO2 but in this case it was more interesting than off-putting.

Tell us about your favorite sandalwood oil. Do you have any treasured bottles?

Sandalwood Drawing Credit: Catu-tsjambu,_Hortus_Indicus_Malabaricus_Wellcome_L0038494

One thought on “Perfumer’s Nose: Sandalwood, The Aroma of Healing

  1. Michel Fanton

    My introduction to perfumery so i am grateful. Oh yes i witnessed ‘tahitian monoi’ making with fresh coconut scraping, Camelia tahiensis ‘tiare Tahiti” with few heads of river shrimps; that was in my Bay of Cook Moorea family.
    Your sandal wood notes speak to me and inspired me into action. I aquired a sandal wood piece what appear to be a basal/ near roots a decade ago. I retrieved the piece (it was a door stopper would anyone guess), pronto, drilled closed up holes on the side, half filled a 4 ounce 150 gramme jar, add vodka 50 degre Vol, Daily testing…. i have little to compare with but it stands on its own. Rounded and persistent. A delightful surprise. Now having an Osmanthus tincture recharging for five days. Very dark and overpowering smells it has not so rich but dark not persistent at all. Will continue to learn with number of species of Gardenia including White Cat Plate, G. thumbergii from Cape Town, Champaka white and yellow, coffee flowers, bananas, Burmese Bayur flowers, papaya male flowers, Mussianda, Zingers Alpinias, limes and other Asian citrus from seed gardens. On coastal heath gardening at 28.20 latitude south facing the Pacific in Byron Bay, Australia. Thank you again Michel Fanton


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