How many different olfactory facets a class of perfumery ingredients can hold? Loud, silent, clean, dirty, animalic, leathery, hot, cold, metallic, hot iron, ergogenic, sexy, wild, soft, human skin, fruity, floral, powdery; musks (plural!) have it all.
The first uses in perfumery dating back all the way to the 6th century, musk is one of the best-known ingredients to date. The word “musk” is derived from the Sanskrit word for testicle. The substance itself was initially derived from the male musk deer (Moschus moschiferus). In modern times, the term “musk” or “white musk” is used to describe a whole range of olfactory compounds, either naturally occurring within animals and plant-derived sources (including those synthesized in labs) or completely created artificially (doesn’t occur in nature whatsoever).
One thing about musks is that they are almost exclusively base notes, due to their heavy molecular weight and low vapour pressure at room temperature (slow evaporation, high/extreme longevity). With the right combinations, they have a great impact on top notes, improving the overall blend as well as increasing diffusiveness while bonding with other high volatile ingredients to preserve the DNA of the scent throughout and mute the alcohol smell.
Natural Musks – Animal or Plant-based
So what is a musk? The original musk is a secretion from an internal pouch found between the rear legs of the male musk deer. This intense smelling secretion is important for male musk deer to mark its territory and to find/attract female partners. After this pouch is carved out (killing the deer in the process), dried and soaked in water, the fatty-faecal grains inside the “musk pods” are extracted.
These grains are tinctured in alcohol, yielding the musk tincture ready to be used in (traditional) perfumery up until the 70s. The main odour compound of natural deer musk is muscone, which is synthesized from citronellal, a primary odour component found in lime leaves and lemongrass (citronella). In other words, thanks to science, we can still (somewhat) enjoy the beauty of natural musk in modern perfumery without harming animals.
Another important animal-derived musk comes from the civet cats (Viverra Civetta). This, again, is another controversial material due to the cruel methods used to extract from the poor animal. Similar to deers, civet cats produce fatty secretions in their perianal region to mark their territory.
To extract this substance, civet cats are kept captive in cramped cages (usually smaller than their own size) 24 hours a day for up to 15 years. The poor animals are kept under constant stress, by means of poking, high temperature by fire and smoke, constant darkness (even if they are nocturnal)…, etc. In the end, the substance is infused in a solvent (alcohol or oil) to become usable in perfumes. The main odour compound of natural civet musk is civetone, which is synthesized from palm oil.
The third animal-derived musk is castoreum, a secretion from castor sacs of beavers. Yes, you guessed it, to mark their territory. In the past, beavers were hunted for their pelts and castoreum sacs were the bonus by-product. Today, this can be obtained without killing the beavers by anaesthetizing the animals – still considered as animal-cruelty.
Contemporary perfumes continue to use this note via synthetic and plant-based recreations from fragrance manufacturers or by using mimicking accords. The smell of castoreum differs based on the dilution. At high concentrations, it’s unpleasant, animalic, urine-like phenolic, leathery and smoky. Depending on the dilution and in combination with other ingredients, it can turn into vanillic, musky and leathery. It is most commonly used in leather notes.
Today, the use of such ingredients (extracted by means of animal cruelty or from endangered species) are banned. Muscone, Civetone remain as widely-used natural musk components found in real deer and civet musks. Castoreum remains as a popular leathery note, via uses of re-creations from non-animal origins.
Let’s not skip the amazing plant-based musks. The first one that comes to mind is the delightful Ambrette seed oil a.k.a musk mallow, produced from the flower seeds of abelmoschus moschatus, and also the source of Ambrettolide, one of the finest musk molecules responsible for the musky smell of ambrette seeds.
And then there’s Angelica root oil due to 1% cyclopentadecanolide content in the roots, which is the same compound that’s well known as Exaltolide, a popular synthetic musk. Again, a superb musk compound that gives a true deer musk note.
Synthetic Musks – of Natural Origin or Completely Artificial
If you’ve read this far, then you’ve probably heard or seen the term “white musk” thrown around in the fragrance notes and descriptions. The term comes from the clean feeling of these musks, reminiscent of freshly washed and ironed linen/cotton giving light detergent vibes. Overall, that “feeling of cleanliness” is the key indicator.
White musks are the industry’s solution to more ethical, economic and sustainable use of musk notes, oftentimes excluding the faecal and animalic facets in natural deer, civet and castoreum musks. These animalic notes are not always disregarded. Therefore, some of the synthetic products purposefully carry these off-putting facets to give complexity to the blends in low doses.
Synthetic musks are primarily categorized based on their chemical structures. These categories and respective common musks involved are:
Clean, human skin, powdery and cosmetic
- Ethylene Brassylate
Soft, clean laundry, sweet, pleasant
Fruity and floral undertones, linear smell
Mostly animalic facets rarely used nowadays
- Musk Xylene
- Musk Ambrette
- Musk Ketone
- Musk Tibetene
A shuffle of musk perfumes
p.s. It goes without saying that it’s harder to find a perfume without musks than with them, whether your nose picks them or not.
The Body Shop – White Musk (woman), the pioneer for the term “white musk” during late 70’s and early 80’s of the cruelty-free wave following the ban on natural deer musk, Galaxolide, Tonalide, Cashmeran and rose-jasmine florals to have a slight vintage feel.
The Body Shop – White Musk (men), a personal all-time favourite for musk, to my nose this is the definition of white musk.
Kiehl’s – Original Musk, a classic, Galaxolide overdose with some animalic notes probably some nitro musks and indolic elements. Galaxolide is a very clean and soft white musk and it serves as the blanket for this animalic blend
Frederic Malle – Musc Ravageur, is one of the best examples of the animalic dirty vintage (nitro) musks with lots of spices and florals.
Lancome – Tresor, the pioneer of the use of Galaxolide and the famous accord of Sophia Grojsman, known as the Grojsman accord, Galaxolide in combination with methylionone (violet), Iso E Super (airy cedar, musk) and Hedione (airy fresh jasmine).
Narciso Rodriguez – For Her, another classic true musk blend, somewhat feels like an upgrade to The Body Shop – White Musk (women).
Juliette Has a Gun – Not A Perfume, marketed for its Cetalox use, which is similar to Ambroxan. In fact, it packs a lot of musks: Ambrettolide, Habanolide, and Ethylene Brassylate in combination of airy Hedione. So, while everyone calls it out as an ambergris Molecule 02 alternative, I call this as a great example to experience white musks!
Juliette Has a Gun – Pear Inc. – Somewhat accessible for those who wish to smell musks in a fruity frame (in this case pear). Similar to “Not A Perfume” in musk-dominance, Ambrettolide’s fruity powdery note is combined with what I can only assume is Helvetolide, pineapple/pear fruity musk that is relatively new. Helvetolide is also one of the magic ingredients used in Creed – Aventus, supporting that charming base carrying the fruity tops throughout the wear. Musc Invisible, from Juliette Has a Gun, provides a more naked, powdery, cosmetic musc reminiscent of The Body Shop – White Musk (women) but overall you can feel the same ingredients used to have the JHAG DNA going on.
Nasomatto – Silver Musk, a variation of Ambrettolide is overdosed in a combination of Habanolide, Cashmeran and Exaltone. Actually, if you sniff deeper, you will find that perfumer Alessandro Gaulteri likes to use musky materials in high concentrations. This is also the case in Nasomatto – Baraonda; under that whiskey lactone wall, there is a huge cloud of musks consisting of Muscone, Exaltolide, and Ambrettolide – mostly providing a skin-like musk with animalic facets.
Parle Moi de Parfum – Milky Musk / 39, Ambrettolide-centered with powdery, hot iron Habanolide in a lactonic sandalwood concoction.
Le Labo – Ambrette 9, feels like a pre-cursor to above Milky Musk / 39, done by the same perfumer, Michel Almairac.
Bvlgari – Pour Homme, with powdery hot-iron Habanolide.
Diptyque – Fleur de Peau, Ambrettolide overdose together with Exaltolide.
Matiere Premiere – Parisian Musc, Ambrette type of fruity powdery musk under a milky-green fig layer.
- Nitro musks are called “nitro” musks because they have a molecular relation to nitrogen and were discovered by Alfred Baur while trying to improve the explosive power of TNT. His trial didn’t work, instead, it stank of deer musk. Chanel No.5 is known for its use of nitro musks, namely the musk ketone – which is the only nitro musk that is not banned yet, and crucial for that vintage feel (some will recall as the grandma note).
- In 2010, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) researchers found out that tigers (and other big cats) are attracted and transfixed to certain perfumes. It’s no surprise that animals are lured by scents, but this one was different. After trying out different perfumes (Chanel No.5, Jovan Musk etc.), the winner was Calvin Klein – Obsession. And the ingredient big cats are attracted to, Civetone, the main compound of civet musk. This discovery was used directly by the officials on the hunt for T-1, the infamous tiger in India that was suspected to have killed a dozen humans.