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Article: Featured Scent: What Does Sandalwood Smell Like?

Featured Scent: What Does Sandalwood Smell Like?

Sandalwood is a rich and sophisticated scent used in a variety of perfumes, soaps, lotions, and luxury candles. 

People often describe this wonderful scent as quite distinctive, but if you haven’t experienced it firsthand, you might be wondering what sandalwood actually smells like.

What Does Sandalwood Smell Like?

Among the traditional fragrance families (citrus, floral, amber, chypre, woody, ferns, and leathers), the smell of sandalwood is categorized as a woody fragrance. Other notable scents in the woody family include cedar, vetiver, patchouli, pine, and cypress.

Out of these, sandalwood is most similar to patchouli — if you’re familiar with and enjoy the smell of patchouli, there’s a good chance that you’ll also love the smell of sandalwood. Both of these fragrances are part of the “woody amber” sub-group on the fragrance wheel, which are characterized as musky and earthy, with subtle sweet and spicy notes.

If you’ve experienced firsthand the pure aroma of sandalwood by itself, you’ll probably find that the smell is very distinctive and easy to recognize. On the other hand, if you’ve never smelled sandalwood before, the unique and complex qualities of its fragrance are somewhat difficult to capture in words alone. 

Like the six blind mice describing an elephant, we can roughly approximate what sandalwood smells like by listing each of its main characteristics.

  • Softly woody
  • Smooth and creamy
  • Warm, rich, and earthy
  • Sensual and seductive
  • Tropical and exotic
  • Slightly musky
  • Slightly sweet
  • Slightly spicy

As part of the woody fragrance family, it’s no surprise that “woody” is one of the primary descriptors of the sandalwood scent. But compared to others in its category — cedar, for example — the woodiness of sandalwood has a brighter vibe with a tinge of sweetness.

Another distinctive feature is how smooth and creamy the smell of sandalwood is. Aficionados of sandalwood love to describe it’s fragrance as buttery, milky, comforting, sensual, and seductive.

One of the special characteristics of sandalwood is that it’s a wonderful base note that complements and enhances other scents. It’s amazing when blended with a range of middle and top notes, especially fruity, floral, and earthy notes, to produce rich and uplifting fragrances.

Sandalwood used to be thought of as a masculine or manly scent because it was primarily used in men’s fragrances. But nowadays, sandalwood is hugely popular in many fragrances made for women as well. We use sandalwood as a base note in several of our top-selling luxury candles — appreciated by both women and men alike — including LoveJosephine, Langston, and Savoy.

Where Does Its Scent Come From?

The unique smell of Sandalwood comes from santalol, a naturally-occurring compound that you can only get from the essential oils extracted from the heartwood of the tropical tree, Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) and its relatives.

Indian sandalwood is an evergreen tree native to southern India and Southeast Asia. Each tree can grow up to 9 meters in height and live for a hundred years. Sadly, Indian sandalwood is currently an endangered species — it’s almost extinct in the wild — due to decades of overharvesting for its fragrant and medicinal properties.

Due to strict government regulation over the harvesting of remaining Indian Sandalwood trees, as well as soaring global demand for its oil and heartwood, sandalwood is considered the planet’s most expensive wood.

Nowadays, a lot of sandalwood oil comes from closely related species of sandalwood trees, including Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicta) and New Caledonia sandalwood (Santalum austrocaledonicum).

New Caledonia sandalwood produces a warm, creamy scent that’s very similar to Indian sandalwood, while Australian sandalwood produces a slightly lighter and woodier scent due to having a lower santalol content.

Both of these sandalwood alternatives cost substantially less than Indian sandalwood, and are considered more ethical due to Indian sandalwood’s threatened status.

What Are the Benefits of Sandalwood?

For 4,000 years, sandalwood has been highly prized for its medicinal benefits. In traditional Indian and Chinese medicine, sandalwood oil was used to help treat colds, digestive problems, UTI’s, muscle problems, and even mental disorders.

While many of these traditional uses have yet to be scientifically proven, modern research has shown that sandalwood provides a wealth of other health benefits, including:

In aromatherapy, fragrance from sandalwood oil is used to promote calmness, lower stress levels, and fight anxiety, nervousness, and depression.

The comfortable, buttery aroma of sandalwood can also help you sleep better by making you feel more relaxed and alleviating symptoms of insomnia.

If you’re planning to light up your favorite sandalwood candle before bedtime, don’t forget to blow it out before you drift off into dreamland. Don’t worry — sandalwood produces a long-lasting fragrance that will continue to linger even after the candle stops burning.

Our Favorite Sandalwood Candles

At the Harlem Candle Company, many of our beloved candle fragrances are infused with warm, addicting base notes of sandalwood to impart deep, long-lasting scents that fill your home or space with a wonderful atmosphere. 

Each candle features an original fragrance blend that tells a different story inspired by the history and culture of the Harlem Renaissance. 


An opulent, luxurious scent that captures the sensational impact of Harlem’s hottest jazz clubs with a bright citrus opening of vibrant bergamot and a velvety background of warm amber, sweet Tonka bean, and precious sandalwood.

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A deeply personal blend based on the life of Langston Hughes, that combines notes of aromatic tobacco, leather, vanilla, heady jasmine, resinous sandalwood, and ambery incense together into a celebration of the jazz poet’s creative vision and some of the strong symbols in his life. 

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An intoxicating reflection of the glamorous and exciting nights spent in the Savoy Ballroom at the heart of Harlem, with luscious fruity and floral overtures blended in perfect harmony with sensual sandalwood and sheer musk.  

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A tribute to the vital thoroughfare known as Harlem’s heartbeat, Lenox Avenue, with succulent tangerine and green apple setting the stage for a seductive heart of lush gardenia and creamy coconut with a potent background of sweet bourbon vanilla and gilded sandalwood.

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The perfect relaxing fragrance that evokes a feeling of serenity and tranquility, featuring notes of lavender, pimento berry, and bergamot, followed by a lush, emotional heart of jasmine and iris, and finished with a seductive field of liquid amber, patchouli, and sandalwood.

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Lady Day

Vibrant and full bodied, yet graceful and delicate, just like Billie Holiday herself, this intoxicating blend brings together lush green leaves, neroli, gardenia, ylang ylang, and coffee flowers. A warm, addictive base of coconut milk, sandalwood, and vetiver provide the perfect finish.

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A soft breeze carries balmy smells of bergamot, cardamom, and freesia across the welcoming stoops of Harlem’s brownstone homes. Soft jazz drifts in from an open window, embodied by warm auras of amber, lemon and saffron, mixing with cozy scents of patchouli and sandalwood swirling in the living room.

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An emotional, romantic theme with both masculine and feminine accords, this fragrance opens with crisp apple and watery green notes with an unexpected nuance of aromatic elemi and spicy clove, while a base of smoky sandalwood brings warmth and depth to this sensual blend.

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Influenced by the vibrant energy of Harlem, refined citrus top notes blend seamlessly with a delicate floral heart of violet, lilac, and jasmine. Aromatic green tea leaves tantalize the senses, and an addictive base of sandalwood, amber, and tonka bean provide a magnificent finish to this magical scent.

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