This Ayurvedic Ingredient in Fragrance & Skin Care Is About To Go Extinct — Here's Why

mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor By Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor

Alexandra Engler is the senior beauty and lifestyle editor who has worked for many of the leading lifestyle publications for the last seven years.

Image by Martí Sans / Stocksy

Our editors have independently chosen the products listed on this page. If you purchase something mentioned in this article, we may earn a small commission.

Sandalwood is in trouble. Multiple varieties of the tree have been over-harvested: According to the IUCN, red sandalwood is considered "Near threatened," Indian and Lanai sandalwood are in even worse shape and are "Vulnerable," and according to this report that came out just last week, Chile sandalwood is fully extinct in the wild.

The ingredient is beloved in the beauty industry—often found as a base for fragrances, essential oils, and skin care products. "Sandalwood is best known for its scent that is considered aromatherapeutic," says cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson, founder and CEO of BeautyStat. "But in skin care, it might provide anti-inflammatory benefits to help soothe skin as well as may help inhibit melanin production to help even out skin tone." Its endangered status is something of an open secret within the beauty community: It's easy to wax poetic about its rich, buttery smell and beautifying topical benefits; less so about the historic—and current—harvesting practices.

And because of its status, anytime you see sandalwood on the ingredient list, chances are it's synthetic. (I am a firm believer that there are instances when synthetics can and should be used over the natural alternative, like makeup brushes, for example.) That, or, it's incredibly diluted with other ingredients. Or, finally, incredibly expensive.

But recently I met with Matthew Milèo, a luxury product formulator and founder of the 100% natural face oil line Milèo New York. The brand's core focus is on using the highest quality natural ingredients—oud being the star active in the collection. Even the beautiful, vibrant colors are created by meticulously mixing natural ingredients. But my interests were piqued at another ingredient lurking on the actives' list. On it? Natural Indian sandalwood.

The tree originates in India, where it's historically been used as one of the most sacred and powerful ingredients in ayurveda. Today, what makes it so rare is a combination of how it is harvested and the incredibly high demand. According to recent reports, the sandalwood market is expected to grow 10% annually until at least 2022, largely in part to the rising interest in aromatherapy. And to harvest sandalwood oil, you must cut down the entire thing: The juice comes from the heartwood resin, or the inside of the tree.

According to Milèo, and most other experts, the best sandalwood in the world comes from Mysore, India. It's the origin of the species, and that's where it thrives best. Survival rate is incredibly important when it comes to sandalwood, because it takes around 30 years for a tree to mature enough to be harvested. (Survival rate is important for any plant that has a long life span, which makes sense: If it takes decades until you are able to use something, you want as many of those as possible to be around.) And Mysore used to have the highest concentration in the world, making it one of the most sought-after regions for the ingredient.

Around midcentury, it had a huge boom—thanks, in part, to the beauty and fragrance market—so much of it was cut down, often illegally. In one review, it shows that between 1950 and 1970, more than 480,000 Indian sandalwood trees were harvested annually in southern India. In the mid-'70s, the government discovered there were only 350,000 standing trees left in the entire state "Overnight, India's sandalwood industry ground to a halt," the study notes. "The species was on the brink of extinction. Harvesting and trade in Indian sandalwood, long considered the most precious wood in the world, was ineffectively banned. Smugglers could now make more money by felling sandal trees than by poaching elephants for ivory."

The species was on the brink of extinction. Harvesting and trade in Indian sandalwood, long considered the most precious wood in the world, was ineffectively banned. Smugglers could now make more money by felling sandal trees than by poaching elephants for ivory.

"It left the forest devastated," notes Milèo. It was at this time that the Indian government outlawed the foresting and exporting of the precious tree. They even went into heavily harvested regions and sanctioned the wood stumps.

And those wood stumps became one of the bases of Milèo's sandalwood. In his hunt for fine essential oils, he found distilleries that worked with the Indian government to source the oil directly from those stumps and their roots. "We only use the tree stumps that have already been cut down years ago," he says. "My distillers are sanctioned by the government to use the trunks and roots to extract the sandalwood oil. We do not cut down a single tree." And, what turned out to be beneficial for Milèo: The roots actually have been shown to have the highest concentration of the juice (around 50% concentration, versus around 28% as in the rest of the bark). And once each stump is fully extracted? Thirty saplings are planted, tagged, and protected.

"We're just now starting to see the benefits of having sandalwood that's grown sustainably and in other parts of the world," he says. So not only is it being replanted in its home state in India, but the tree is grown in other parts of the world that are able to support a high survival rate, like in Australia, Indonesia, and Hawaii, and often on sustainable farms. ("We see, for example, in Australia the survival rate is 85%, which is very high for a plant grown outside of its place of origin," he notes. "And each region has their nuances, like, for example, those from Hawaii are a little fruitier. The original trees from Mysore are still the richest, but there's not a drastic difference between them and the new regions' plants.")

And on these sustainable farms, in order to maintain an ethically harvested crop, each time a tree gets chopped down, more are seeded. So when you reach for your favorite fragrance or oil that has the precious ingredient, rest assured, says Milèo, "There's hope for sandalwood."

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