Sandalwood (Santalum Album, Tan Xiang)

Santalum AlbumIndian sandalwood, also known as Santalum Album or Tan Xiang in Pinyin, is just what its name suggests: it is a semi-parasitic plant native to India and later introduced to China followed by Buddhism. Pure sandalwood can be used as a Chinese herb that is in the forms of sandalwood chop and powder. Thanks to sandalwood scent’s unique effect on soothing heart, calming mind, and eliminating distractions, it is also usually burned in a dedicated burning stove as an auxiliary mean for self-cultivation. As a commonly used aromatic herb, it needs to be distinguished from another one called agilawood (Chen Xiang). From the point of view of traditional Chinese medicine, sandalwood’s aroma is quite obvious. That’s to say, it diffuses more quickly and further. And “Chen Xiang”, literally translated, means “heavy fragrance” in Chinese. So, agilawood is quite calming and introverted on healing properties. As you can see now, they have very different efficacy.

What is sandalwood?

It refers to the woody heartwood of Santalum album L., which is a member in the family Santalaceae. Other common names of this herb are Chandana, Sandal Tree, Yellow Saunders, Lignum Santali Albi, Chandan, White Sandalwood, sandal wood, Tanxiang, Sanderswood, Bai Tan, Yellow Sandalwood, and White Saunders, more. It is mainly produced in India, Australia, and Indonesia. In China it is distributed in Hainan, Guangdong, Yunnan and Taiwan. The preferable harvesting season is summer. After the harvest, it needs to remove the sapwood and chip or cut into extremely thin slices with a special knife. Medicinally it is usually used raw.

Sandalwood tree is a small evergreen tree, 6 to 9 meters in height, and with parasitic root. Bark is brown and rough or with longitudinal crack. It has many branches; shoots are smooth and hairless. Opposite leaves are leathery and with elliptic-ovate or ovate-lanceolate blade that is 3.5 to 5cm long, 2 to 2.5cm wide, and with acute or subacute apex, cuneate base, and entire margin. Axillary and terminal flowers are thrice forked cymose-panicle; opposite pedicels are about equal in length with the perianth tube; flowers are many, small, and from pale yellow initially to deep purple later; bell-shaped floral envelope has 4-lobed apex, and ovate, glabrous lobes; nectaries are 4, slightly rounded, and alternate with nectar; stamens are 4, alternate with nectar, as long as pistil, and with 2-roomed anther and linear filaments; ovary is semi-inferior, and with columnar style and 3-lobed stigma. Drupe is sphere, in the size of a cherry, black when ripe, succulent, and with hard endocarp and 3 short edges. Seeds are round, smooth, and hairless.

Sandalwood heartwood contains 3-5 % volatile oils (sandalwood oil), which include more than 90% α-santalol and β-santalol. In addition, it still contains α-santalene, β-santalene, santene, α-santenol, santalone, santalic acid, teresantalic acid, isovaleraldehyde, teresantalol, tricycloekasantal, santalin, deoxysantalin, sinapyl aldehyde, coniferyl aldehyde, ferulic aldehyde, syringic aldehyde, vanillin, and so on.

Modern pharmacological actions of fragrant sandalwood

1) Sandalwood extract by perfusion presents negative inotropic effect on the isolated frog heart;
2) It shows antagonistic action to arrhythmia caused by the poisoning of Si Ni Tang and Wu Jia Pi (Acanthopanax Root Bark);
3) Sandalwood oil has a diuretic effect;
4) Oil of sandalwood has inhibition on Dysentery bacillus and Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Sandalwood benefits

It highly aromatic heartwood can be used to make artifacts and medicine. In temples it is burned directly or in the form of incense sticks to worship Buddha. As mentioned above, Santalum Album is a semi-parasitic plant, which grows very slowly and usually takes decades of years to grow to full size. That makes it one of the slowest growing trees but the mature trees can be up to 10 meters. This tree is so delicate that its seedlings survive only when parasiting on plants of phoenix tree, ormosia hosiei, Acacia rachii, and the like. As a result, the production of sandalwood is very limited. For that reason, since ancient time it has long been the rare, expensive wood and gift from nature. Today synthetic fragrances and perfumes dominate the world. But compared to this valuable natural spice, they are actually nothing.

Sandalwood as medicine and worship tool has a long history, which was recorded in the ancient Sanskrit classics and Chinese medicinal books. Sandalwood essential oil was used in religious rituals long time ago. It is said that ancient Egyptians imported sandalwood for a variety of purposes, including medicine, antisepsis, worship in religious ceremonies, and carving art. Actually many statues of the Buddha were directed carved with sandalwood wood. Ayurveda, a traditional medicine system from the Indian subcontinent, points out that it owns tonic, astringent, and antipyretic properties. And sandalwood paste was and is used to treat skin inflammation, abscesses and tumors. Similarly, this is also an important herb in traditional Chinese medicine. Today it is still widely used in treatment of various symptoms, such as biliary disease, cystitis, gonorrhea, abdominal pain, fever, and vomiting. What’s more, it especially works wonders for chapped skin, housewives’ eczema, dark spots on skin and face, insect bites, and the like. This herb has so many health benefits, but the top 5 are as follows:

1) Psychological effectiveness. Smelling scent with a sandalwood diffuser is a good way for relaxing since it can soothe nervous tension and anxiety. In addition, it receives a positive response from many users who often find themselves in the state of being obsessed and want to improve it;

2) Physiological effects. It is extremely helpful to the genitourinary system. It can improve cystitis. When used to massage the kidney area, it is able to clear blood and reduce inflammation; its aphrodisiac properties can improve sexual problems, such as frigidity and impotence; it make patients who suffer from mucosal inflammation feel comfortable and sleep better. It can stimulate the immune system to prevent bacterial infection; it has a preventive action on allergic skin, benefits dry eczema and aging dry skin, makes the skin softer, and improves itchy or inflamed skin; the use of sandalwood incense or other products can help sleep.

3) Cosmetic effect. Pure sandalwood oil is suitable for aging, dry skin. It can promote skin metabolism, speed up the growth and renewal of skin cell, accelerate the healing of wounds and scars, and help repair damaged skin cells. In addition, it also has good antibacterial effect, which can improve skin conditions like irritation and itch and thereby get rid of acne. So, you can improve your skin by homemade sandalwood mask.

Sample sandal wood recipes on herbal remedies

The Chinese Materia Medica says that it is acrid in flavor and warm in nature. It covers meridians of spleen, stomach, and lung. Basic functions are promoting the circulation of qi, dispelling cold, and relieving pain. Essential sandalwood uses and indications include chest or abdominal pain and bloating, vomiting and diarrhea due to cholera, dysphagia, spitting food, and abdominal pain and swelling caused by cold-natured hernia. Recommended dosage is from 1.5 to 3 grams in decoction. Attention please, it needs to be decocted later. Besides, these days there are tons of related products available, such as sandalwood joss sticks, tea, deodorant, body oil, beard oil, body wash, air freshener, aftershave, cologne, shampoo, powder, body lotion, beads, scented candles, perfume, soap, and so on.

1) Chen Xiang Mo Pi San from Yang Shi Jia Cang Fang (Yang Family Depository of Formulas). It is fomulated with Ren Shen (Ginseng), Ding Xiang (Cloves), Huo Xiang (Patchouli), Mu Xiang (Costus), Wu Yao (Lindera), etc. to treat deficiency and cold in spleen-stomach, bloating, vomiting and nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and more.
2) Dan Shen Yin from Yi Xue Jin Zhen (the Golden Needle of Medicine). It is combined with Dan Shen (Salvia Miltiorrhiza) and en (Cardamom Seed) to cure various pains in heart and abdomen that belong to half-excess and half-deficiency pattern.

3) Tan Xiang Yin from Sheng Ji Zong Lu (Complete Record of Holy Benevolence). It is matched with agilawood and Bing Lang (betel nut) to heal swelling due to malicious pathogenic wind.

4) Chen Xiang San from Pu Ji Fang (Prescriptions of Universal Relief). It is equipped with Costus, Zhi Ke (Fructus Aurantii), and Wu Yao (Lindera Root) to cure dysphagia syndrome.

Medical research on Santalum Album

Clinically sandalwood-based formulas are frequently used in the treatment of a variety of stomach pain, dysmenorrhea, hyperlipidemia, angina pectoris, and chest pain caused by traumatic injuries. And here are some examples for your reference:

a) The variation of Dan Shen Yin, composed of Salvia, sandalwood, and Amomum could be used to treat various stomachaches and the effects are obvious;

b) 34 cases of painful periods have been treated with the decoction of Dan Shen Yin variation, consisting of Salvia, white sandalwood, Amomum, cattails, etc. The patients should take it 3 to 5 days before the menstruation each month and don’t stop until the period is over. And 33 cases were cure;

c) 30 cases of patients with abnormally elevated levels of lipids have been treated with the decoction of Sandalwood, salvia, hawthorn, and Fo-Ti root. And statistically there was a significant difference between before and after treatment on the indicators of cholesterol, triglycerides, and lipoprotein.

Sandalwood side effects and contraindications

Sandalwood is considered non-toxic by the “Compendium of Materia Medica.” As of this writing, there are no known adverse reactions reported in the oral administration of decoction of conventional dose. And there are no obvious side effects in long-term use too. TCM wise, Ben Cao Hui Yan (Treasury of Words on the Materia Medica) says that it shouldn’t be used in case of cough caused by the stirring blood in the pattern of fire excess from yin deficiency.


a) Hu Bei Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Hubei Journal of Chinese Medicine), 1986; 5:12;
b) Si Chuan Zhong Yi (Sichuan Chinese Medicine), 1985; 5:16;
c) Xin Jiang Zhong Yi Yao (Xinjiang Chinese Medicine and Herbology) 1992; 2:23.

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