Perfume Ingredients: MUSK
- By Jean Peters-Do
“Musk” is a key ingredient in both natural and commercial perfumes and perfumed products because it makes fragrances last longer. It’s an important natural perfume fixative, allowing the wearer to enjoy rare and precious essences for up to a few hours. I use botanical musk and several types of animal musk in Amaravati perfumes to help my formulas last longer on your skin. Some of my perfumes last for a full day. Longevity is more or less the reason why it’s used in all fragranced and some food products.
Aside from the chemical qualities of musk, there is a deeper magic to it, which is how musk affects us emotionally and physically. Musk odors have a range of odor profiles; some are warm and sensual, sweet and musty, woody, or have animal- or skin-like smells. Everyone likes some musk smells, though some people don’t like specific musk molecules.
Musk is without doubt the odor of attraction. Have you ever been near a perfect stranger with whom you felt uncontrollable urges to get closer to? Or the opposite! Have you ever been around someone and are instantly turned off? I’m not talking about the obvious reasons like a great perfume or strong body odor. It may be because you are able to perceive their natural smell at a subconscious level.
We know that smell affects us emotionally because deep memories and smell are connected in the brain. Our behavior may seem irrational at times because it is being triggered by a subconscious odor stimulus, which is especially true for odors like pheromones and hormones- our natural musk. Androsterone and estrogen are just two of the naturally occurring steroid hormones in men and women, and interestingly they have similar shapes as musk molecules. The power of smell on our behavior has been studied extensively with new discoveries all the time.
Musk molecules activate specific human musk odor receptors, and because they affect us so powerfully there is a tremendous amount of research and money devoted to the science of musk. Basically, everything that is fragranced has musk in it, even if it is a type of musk molecule that has a very faint scent by itself. There are hundreds of synthetic musk molecules in the food and fragrance industry.
Musk is especially important in natural perfumery because of its benefit fixing the sublime nature of botanical essences. Extracts from plants are as fragile and brief as the plants from which they are derived. Some flower extracts only last about 15 minutes, like Linden Blossom CO2. Rose and Jasmine last longer, but usually not more than a couple of hours at the most, similarly to the actual flowers they are extracted from. The same goes for citrus oils. You know this too, if you ever eat fresh oranges. The peel smells fabulous for about a half an hour, then it starts to smell off and unpleasant.
So how is musk a fixative? Musk molecules are very large molecules with big rings. Smaller molecules fit in with and connect with these big, fatty molecules. In a way they are like big baskets with space for dainty little flowers, herbs, fruit, and other lovely things. They hold light and airy molecules, so they won’t diffuse away too quickly.
NATURAL MUSK Materials
Animal musk used in the industry includes castoreum, civet, hyraceum, onycha, and ambergris. The most desirable musk of antiquity comes from the endangered wild musk deer, which was overhunted but is protected now. Nevertheless, musk deer grains are still available in pharmaceutical form, from farms. Civet is farmed. Castoreum is readily available. Onycha is from a mollusk. Ambergris is very rare, and the best has probably been floating on the ocean for decades before it washes up on shore.
These ingredients have been used for thousands of years for their natural appeal and beauty. They are more common than you’d think and almost all iconic great perfumes contain one or more natural musks. Castoreum is still used as food flavoring and is listed under “and other natural flavors.” There is a high probability that you have consumed animal musk in some form or another if you wear classic perfume or eat ice cream.
Hyraceum is an interesting animal musk. It is harvested as “stones” from the rocky habitat of the Cape Hyrax, a tiny animal related to elephants and sea cows. Over many years their natural secretions, urine, and feces collects on the rocks and bakes or fossilizes in the sun. The pulverized stones are tinctured in alcohol and this tincture needs to age at least a year to overcome its natural harshness. It works well in earthy formulas and has a broad scent profile, but is generally somewhere between castoreum and civet.
Onycha is most often used as an ingredient in traditional incense, but natural perfumers keep it on hand in tincture form. The top notes are pure seaside – salty seaweed and sand. The pulverized form is animalic, like bone and nails to my nose. Some people describe it as leathery, but to me not so much. I have tanned several animal hides by hand and have a good nose for raw leather, and the closest musk specimen I have in my possession with a true leather scent is the Mozambique ambergris I tinctured in 2020.
Ambergris is a topic for another post, but a summary: my first ambergris tinctures were made in 2013. I remember my initial reaction when I opened the tiny packets of sweet tobacco, antique, sweet dark, and marine specimens. Hundreds of dollars for tiny little lumps of poop! With faith I powdered each piece, tinctured them in 190 proof alcohol, and didn’t open a bottle for 6 months. They smelled a bit better, and I didn’t open the bottles again until they were a year old. What a magical transformation! The poop smell was gone and each lived up to the hype. In 2019 I made an investment in a rare specimen and some random pieces. The smaller pieces are what I would classify as antique type, which is on the musty side of the ambergris scent spectrum. The tan piece smells like a very fine suede.
The main odor molecule in ambergris is ambrein. There are efforts to use plants with certain ingredients, like labdane in clary sage, to reproduce ambergris (rather than rely on pure synthetics). This apparently can happen spontaneously, because I have an aged bottle of clary sage absolute on my perfume organ that smells like it has ambergris in it.
There is also a vegetal musk – ambrette seed and the natural isolate ambrettolide. Ambrette seed smells nutty, oily, and musty. Some perfumers describe it as smelling like skin. This actually makes sense if they are smelling it on their skin. Because ambrette is light and doesn’t contain any animal secretions, its musk molecule can capture and hold the wearer’s own scent when their oils blend with the ambrette seed oil. Ambrettolide is a lighter, more sheer version. I use ambrette seed or ambrettolide in formulas that would be ruined with a heavy animalic note.
AMARAVATI MUSKed PERFUMES
My personal preference for the different types of musk depends entirely on the perfume I’m creating. Mandy Aftel lets her students add 1 drop of musk like ambergris as a “freebie” in our formulas, which I practice enthusiastically. Ambergris never disappoints. Castoreum is powerfully masculine and leathery, like oakmoss; I use hyraceum the same way. Civet is pure femininity, and a composition with indolic flowers like jasmine, tuberose, neroli, orange blossom, or ylang ylang is the right fit. Thankfully, a tiny bit of these goes a long way, even the size of a drop on the tip of a toothpick is enough. With these last three, subtlety is the rule.
Perhaps you are like me and cannot tolerate synthetic perfume and fragrances. In my opinion, the more subtle and more natural a fragrance is, the more potent it is at a subliminal level. If you know how to wield this knowledge, that’s a superpower! Whether your natural perfume is made with ambergris, ambrette musk, or other animal musks, these ingredients give your perfume sensuality, sexiness, and serious staying power on your skin. Natural perfumes mix with the natural scents of your skin and musk to create something truly magical and unique to you.