What Is Musk in Perfume?

  • By: Nathan Cherry
  • Time to read: 8 min.

Musk, musk, musk. 

It’s probably one of the most famous perfume ingredients. Most people probably have no idea what oud or patchouli or ylang-ylang are, but they’ve probably heard the word “musk” at some point in their lives. 

It’s hardly specialized jargon, after all. We often use it to describe how things smell, both in a good and a bad way. 

“That’s a nice musky smell,” in a positive sense, for instance. 

Or in a somewhat less than positive sense, “You’re smelling a little musky today, bro. Did you forget to put on deodorant?” 

Musk sticks are a rather polarizing candy from Australia, and, of course, who could forget about Elon Musk? 

But just what is musk? What makes a scent musky or not musky? 

The answer might surprise you. 

Musk is an animal product originally derived from the scent gland of the musk deer. However, nowadays most “musks” used in perfumes are either synthetic, plant-based, or harvested from other, less endangered animals.  

Musk is a truly fascinating ingredient with a long and storied history in the perfume world. 

Let’s take a closer look, shall we? 

What Is Musk? 

A Siberian musk deer.

Musk originally referred to an ingredient gleaned from the musk deer, a kind of deer native to south and central Asia. 

This peculiar ingredient is harvested from what is called the “musk pod”, the scent gland of male musk deer, which is used to attract mates and mark territory. 

The deer is hunted, killed, and its musk pod collected. The “grains” of scent within the pod are then tinctured in alcohol, and the resultant mixture can finally be used in perfume. 

Deer musk was used in perfume in Asia for thousands of years. It was considered a great luxury, a medical curative, and, of course, a potent aphrodisiac. 

Once musk made its way to the Western world in the early Middle Ages, it proved wildly popular among the nobility. Its popularity persisted well into the 20th century, until use of deer musk in commercial perfumery was banned in 1979, when musk deer were listed as an endangered species by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). 

A musk deer’s musk pod and the reddish-brown musk grains inside it.

Today, almost all perfumes containing a “musk” note contain no real musk at all – at least, not any deer musk. A variety of synthetic musks, aroma chemicals that mimic certain qualities of authentic musk are used instead. 

Plant scents that smell similar to the aroma of musk – ambrette, for instance, also known as “musk mallow”, used deftly in Dior Homme Intense, or angelica, found in perfumes like Frederic Malle’s French Lover and Angéliques Sous La Pluie – are sometimes employed to stand in for musk, but they are often passed over in favor of synthetic musks for cost saving purposes. 

Ambrette, also known as musk mallow, seeds, widely used a substitute for musk in perfumery.

What Role Does Musk Play In Perfume? 

Musk is one of the great foundational ingredients of modern perfumery. 

The vast importance of musk is illustrated by the fact that even today, when natural deer musk is almost never used, musks in some form or another are still employed in a vast amount of perfumes. 

Musk as a scent isn’t limited just to perfume, either. Synthetic musks are found in laundry and dish detergents, hand soaps, shampoos, cosmetics, and even as a food flavoring agent. 

So what is it that makes musk so useful? 

Musk is what is known as a fixative

A fixative, in scientific terms, is an ingredient that reduces the volatility of a formula – essentially, it decreases the rate at which the raw materials in a perfume evaporate. 

Alcohol, for example, is considered a highly volatile substance. You need only take a match to a rum-soaked bananas foster to observe how quickly alcohol evaporates. Olive oil, on the other hand, is much less volatile, and won’t evaporate unless exposed to high temperatures.

Volatility is of paramount importance when making perfume. A fragrance containing highly volatile citrus essential oils, for example, might provide you with a short burst of scent, but will be undetectable within minutes. Though some might be satisfied with having a perfume last for a few minutes, I’d wager that most people enjoy being able to smell themselves for longer than that. 

That’s where fixatives come into play. Fixatives are “heavier”, less volatile ingredients, such as woods, patchouli, vanilla, resins like myrrh and frankincense, and of course musk, that serve to “ground” a perfume.  

Fixatives increase the longevity of a perfume, meaning they make it longer lasting on your clothes and skin. 

They also add heft and body to a formulation. A citrus and white floral fragrance with nothing to ground it will smell as light as air. Add some sandalwood and musk, though, and you’ll have a proper perfume on your hands. 

Natural deer musk is one of the most powerful and longest lasting scents in the animal kingdom. A few drops of the stuff is enough to fill a room. It’s a small wonder, then, that musk became such a perfumery staple. 

Although synthetic and plant musks might not have the same qualities as the genuine article, they are nevertheless powerful fixatives that are absolutely indispensable to modern perfumes. 

But What Does It Smell Like? 

This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions about musk to answer. 

Musk is well-known for its mercuriality, changing from person to person. All scents are subjective, but one’s perception of musk is especially so. Many people aren’t even able to smell certain varieties of musk. 

The smell of musk is a study in contrasts, at once clean and dirty, pure and vile, clinical and animal. 

The aroma of natural deer musk is said to be incredibly complex, with distinctly animalistic, fecal qualities, as well as earthy sweetness, similar to the scent of human skin or body odor. 

Synthetic and plant musks, of course, do not have the same richness as animal musks. Synthetic musks do away with the fecal quality of musk altogether, instead presenting a scent profile that is slightly sweet and squeaky clean. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that modern synthetic musks don’t have animalic characteristics. Though the “laundry musk” present in detergents and hand soaps might be sleek and clean, a perfume might deliberately try to create a “dirty” musk accord. 

Why, oh why, you might be wondering, would anyone want to smell dirty

Well, dirty can sometimes be sexy. We are animals, after all, and nothing sets off an animal like the smell of another animal. 

Musk, with its skin-like, even body odor-esque qualities, flips some kind of switch within us. Musk is often described as intoxicating, obscene, or even dizzying. 

It’s a heady, polarizing aroma like no other. For some there’s nothing better, and for others there’s nothing worse. 

There is really no proper way to describe musk with words. How I feel about musk (and I do feel a great deal about it) might differ considerably with how you feel about musk. 

The only way to understand it is to smell it. Which leads us to…

What Are Some Good Musk Perfumes to Try? 

There are literally so many good musk perfumes out there that it makes recommending them difficult. There’s even some perfumes out there today made with natural, ethically sourced deer musk (take a look into Ensar Oud and Areej le Doré, if you’re interested and have a mountain of money to spare). 

There are, however, a few benchmark musks to try as one looking to understand the note. 

Kiehl’s Original Musk is a classic musk perfume that’s been around for quite a while – since the 1920s, allegedly. It’s definitely a love-it-or-hate-it kind of scent. Some emphatically claim that it’s one of the sexiest perfumes of all time, while others think it smells like a grandma. I myself am not quite sold on it, but it’s still worth a try, and quite easy to get hold of. 

The Body Shop’s White Musk (the men’s and women’s versions) is a classic clean and fresh musk perfume. At once sexy and celestial, it also has the virtue of being cheap as chips and available at most malls. I’ve had a bottle of the men’s version myself in the past and have to say that you’ll be hard pressed to find an easier to wear all-rounder of a scent. 

The entire perfume line of the designer brand Narciso Rodriguez contains a prominent musk note at the heart of the composition. For Her is a sophisticated yet sensual floral musk with lush osmanthus and African orange flower, while For Him Bleu Noir EDP is a rich, creamy musk with ebony wood and amber. Any number of Narciso Rodriguez perfumes would give you a good introduction to the world of musk. 

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the most controversial musk fragrances: the simultaneously comfy and carnal Musc Ravageur from French niche brand Frederic Malle. Combining animalic musk with a rich blend of creamy vanilla, aromatic lavender, baking spices like cinnamon and cloves, tonka beans, and woods, Musc Ravageur has been variably described as a “raunchy baby” or “sexy Christmas”.

Everyone has their own take on Musc Ravageur, just like everyone has their own take on musk. But one thing is clear: no serious musk aficionado can pass it over. I myself hated it at first, but fell in love with it after 2-3 wearings. At the very least, it’s worth a try. 

The Final Word 

So, what is musk? 

“Musk” originally referred to a perfume ingredient gleaned from the scent gland of the musk deer. However, in the modern day, “musk” is made up almost exclusively of synthetic aroma chemicals designed to mimic the smell of natural musk, due to the endangered status of musk deer. 

Musk is truly one of the most fascinating perfume ingredients. In almost no other case is there such a difference of opinion about a single smell. 

Relentlessly clean or dirty? Earthy or heavenly? Raunchy sex must or freshly washed baby skin? Musk is a chameleon, changning its skin from person to person and nose to nose. 

Why not get your nose on a musk perfume at your nearest department store? It must be smelled to be believed.