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Musk: From Stink to Sweet Cleanliness

MUSK is one of the most fascinating and intriguing fragrant ingredients in history, renowned for its intensity, complexity, and performance properties, coupled with its alluring, warm, and sensual scent. From its fecal and urinous odor profile in its natural form to its clean and sweet synthetic versions, musks have captivated the world since the 6th century. It is arguably the most utilized type of raw material in perfumery, available in a wide array of variants.

 

Musk Deers

 

MUSK AND ITS ORIGIN

 

Derived from the Sanskrit word for “testicles,” musk is a substance obtained from an internal pouch found between the genitals and the umbilicus of the male Tibetan musk deer (Moschus moschiferus). To produce the tincture, it is necessary to isolate the musk grains by cutting off the very fragrant pods, later water-washed and dried. This cruel practice, which involves killing the animal, was banned in 1979 when the musk deer received endangered species status and was finally protected. As a result, the use of natural musk, which dates back to the 6th century, brought from India through the silk and spice routes, has drastically decreased. Today, it is no longer used in the perfume industry and has been largely replaced by a wide array of synthetic variants.

 

Musk PodsMusk pods

 

SYNTHETIC MUSKS AND ADVANTAGES

 

Synthetic musks are known as “white musks” because they evoke the sensation of cleanliness akin to freshly washed and ironed clothes while maintaining a fur-like feel. These chemicals primarily mimic the scent of muscone, which represents only 2% of the pure musk secretion (called Tonkin musk). Greasy and creamy, this substance is useful to the deer for marking territory and attracting females – hence the claim of its aphrodisiac power.

Despite their diverse range of odor profiles, synthetic musks share a common denominator: their fixative, enhancing, and roundness properties. As a base note with a heavier molecular weight, musks slow down the evaporation of ingredients with higher volatility. They lift notes such as citruses and flowers and deepen resins and woods. They stabilize and sharpen the edges of compositions with their blending power, enabling a harmonious integration with the skin.

In addition to ethics, sustainability, and health safety, synthetic musks offer numerous advantages. Variety: They can be animalic or clean, metallic or powdery, dry or sweet, depending on the perfumer’s desired olfactory effect. Consistency: They have a more predictable scent, unlike natural musk, which could vary greatly from batch to batch. Accessibility: They are easy to obtain, much less expensive, and can be produced on a large scale.

 

Muscone

Muscone molecule (3D)

 

TRANSITION TO FINE FRAGRANCE

 

Different types of white musks emerged due to the high demand from the functional products industry in the 1950s-60s to mask the undesired chemical smell of products such as detergents and fabric softeners. These musks were especially favored for being water-resistant and lasting for months on sheets, towels, and clothes, as well as being relatively inexpensive. Once “stinky,” musks became associated with the smell of cleanliness. It became more than a scent; it became a feeling.

The hippie movement in the 1970s contributed to the transition of musks to fine fragrances, as synthetic musks were mixed with patchouli oil, imparting a sensual aspect and allowing the perfume to blend well with the skin’s natural odor.

 

Synthetic Musks

 

TYPES OF SYNTHETIC MUSKS

 

The most commonly used synthetic musks can be divided into four types, depending on their chemical structure, each with different scent profiles.

Nitro musks: The oldest type, discovered by accident in 1888 when the chemist Alfred Baur was trying to increase the power of TNT (hence the name). The result was a fetid odor reminiscent of natural musk. With a strong and rough aspect and a vintage powdery style, nitro musks are rarely used today.

Polycyclic musks: Softer, cleaner, and sweeter, with floral and woody undertones. The most famous is Galaxolide, invented by IFF, which gained popularity in the 1960s-70s in the functional products industry, particularly in the USA.

Macrocyclic musks: Cosmetic, clean, skin-like such as the low-cost and widely used Ethylene Brassylate (sweeter and more powdery) and Habanolide (airier and more metallic). Due to their large molecular weight, a high percentage of the population can’t smell them.

Alicyclic (linear) musks: A more recent generation of musks which include Helvetolide and Sylkolide, both fruity, with a cotton-like impression.

Fragrance houses invest heavily and continuously in creating new musks with different scent profiles and properties.

 

Galaxolide

Galaxolide molecule

 

EXAMPLES OF FRAGRANCES RICH IN MUSKS

 

Jovan’s Musk, 1972 (floral, powdery)
The Body Shop’s White Musk, 1981 (floral, woody)
L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Mûre et Musc, 1978 (fruity, earthy)
Serge Lutens’ Musc Koublaï Khan, 1998 (animalic, powdery)
Frédéric Malle’s Musc Ravageur, 2000 (spicy, powdery, vanillic)
Kiehl’s Original Musk, 2004 (floral, ~90% of Galaxolide)
Narciso Rodriguez’s women’s collection, 2003 (floral, woody)
Initio Parfums’ Musk Therapy, 2021 (pure, clean, fresh)

 

Musk Fragrances

 

NATURAL ALTERNATIVES

 

Perfumers averse to aroma chemicals often turn to oils of ambrette and angelica seeds, which contain Ambrettolide and Exaltolide, respectively. Both of these macrocyclic musks effectively replicate the cleanliness, sensuality, and coziness of natural musk.

 

Ambrette Angelica SeedsAmbrette seeds (to the left) and Angelica seeds (to the right)

 

(text by Daniel Barros)

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DANIEL BARROS

DANIEL BARROS

Editor-in-Chief

DANIEL BARROS is Brazilian, based in São Paulo, and the author of  ‘1001 Perfumes: The Guide’. He has been collaborating with ScentXplore since 2021, contributing to content production and management, as well as organizing the annual ScentXplore People’s Choice Niche Fragrance Awards. In addition to his editorial responsibilities, Daniel is actively involved in mentoring niche brands and fragrance enthusiasts all over the world. Click here to send him a private message or report an error. Follow Daniel on Instagram @danielbarros_1001perfumes.

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