alpha-Santalol, an active component of sandalwood oil, has been studied in detail in recent years for its skin cancer preventive efficacy in murine models of skin carcinogenesis; however, the mechanism of its efficacy is not defined. Two major biological events responsible for the clonal expansion of transformed/initiated cells into tumors are uncontrolled growth and loss of apoptotic death. Accordingly, in the present study, employing human epidermoid carcinoma A431 cells, we assessed whether alpha-santalol causes cell growth inhibition and/or cell death by apoptosis. Treatment of cells with alpha-santalol at concentrations of 25-75 microM resulted in a concentration- and a time-dependent decrease in cell number, which was largely due to cell death. Fluorescence-activated cell sorting analysis of Annexin V/propidium iodide (PI) stained cells revealed that alpha-santalol induces a strong apoptosis as early as 3 h post-treatment, which increases further in a concentration- and a time-dependent manner up to 12 h. Mechanistic studies showed an involvement of caspase-3 activation and poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase cleavage through activation of upstream caspase-8 and -9. Further, the treatment of cells with alpha-santalol also led to disruption of the mitochondrial membrane potential and cytochrome c release into the cytosol, thereby implicating the involvement of the mitochondrial pathway. Pre-treatment of cells with caspase-8 or -9 inhibitor, pan caspase inhibitor or cycloheximide totally blocked alpha-santalol-caused caspase-3 activity and cleavage, but only partially reversed apoptotic cell death. This suggests involvement of both caspase-dependent and -independent pathways, at least under caspase inhibiting conditions, in alpha-santalol-caused apoptosis. Together, this study for the first time identifies the apoptotic effect of alpha-santalol, and defines the mechanism of apoptotic cascade activated by this agent in A431 cells, which might be contributing to its overall cancer preventive efficacy in mouse skin cancer models.