What Is Musk In Perfume? (And Why It’s The Most Complex Scent)

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You may hear smells described from smelling perfumes from time to time. In a way, it is a lot like the tasting that goes on for wines.

Does it taste fresh? Dry? Fruity? That kind of thing. With perfumes, the smells are obviously different from the taste of wine.

What Is Musk In Perfume, And Why It's The Most Complex Scent?

However, there is one smell that perfumers and those with an avid interest in perfumery have been talking about in abundance recently.

That smell is musk. This smell is obviously not like citrus, flowery, or any other kind of fresh smell.

Even the name conjures different images from those smells. So, what exactly is the deal with musk? Why is it in perfume? And why is it so complex? In this article, we hope to answer these questions, so you don’t have to.

What Is Musk?

Musk is talked about a lot in the modern day, but it has been an ingredient in perfumery for thousands of years. We can infer this from where the base word comes from.

‘Musk’ originated from either the Greek μόσχος ‘moskhos’ or from the Persian ‘Mushk’, both of which were civilizations in the BCE era.

It has been a fixture in perfumes since this time, due to its evocation of carnal desires in a very subtle way. The original scent was procured not from flowers, plants, or oils, but from an animal.

The Musk deer. This deer resides in from Afghanistan, through the Indian subcontinent, up to the Tibetan Plateau, throughout China, into Mongolia and Siberia, and down into Northern Vietnam.

This particular deer gains its name from a certain body part that it has: the Musk gland. The gland is used to spray musk in a territory, marking it as that particular male deers.

Other deers will then smell that musk and recognize whose territory that is.

If they are rival males, they may fight for the territory, and if they are females they may consider moving into that territory, depending on how they view the resident male.

Musk was obtained by hunting or poaching adult male deer. This was normally done through pre laid traps, but active hunting also took place to obtain the glands.

Once killed, the gland was found under the skin of the abdomen in a pouch. These glands were then removed and laid out to dry.

Once dry, the reddish paste inside, that was originally sprayed out as musk, would become a dark granular substance called ‘musk grain’ and this would then be tinctured with alcohol to create a liquid musk solution that could be used in perfumery.

With the expansion of empires in the 19th century and the increase in industrialization around the world, the musk deer became endangered and other sources of musk had to be found.

Animal sources included the North American muskrat, musk duck, musk ox, musk beetle, and musk turtle, however many of these weren’t viable for a global market, due to the small amount of musk they produce.

In the modern day, perfumery has stepped away from using animal musk, mainly because using it would likely make the animals involved endangered, if not outright extinct. Instead, synthetic musk is created to emulate the musk deer’s scent.

While there are some issues with synthetic musk, including its carcinogenic properties, it has sorted one issue of using musk in perfume.

Why Do We Use It In perfumes?

Why Do We Use It In perfumes?

It’s not just the smell that makes musk a desirable substance in perfume. It is a part of a foundational step in perfumery, and you will often find that non-musky perfumes still use musk as an ingredient.

The reason? It is because musk is a fixative. If we take the scientific definition, a fixative is an ingredient that reduces the volatility of a solution or of a formula.

If we are talking about a perfume, a fixative would therefore be a substance that increases the amount of time a perfume stays a liquid and reduces the rate of a perfume’s evaporation.

See, a lot of perfumes have highly volatile ingredients, in the sense that they can disrupt the chemical composition of the final product. The perfect example of this is alcohol.

Alcohol is used in almost every perfume, but the higher percent proof it is (the purer it is) the more volatile it is.

Since perfume uses ethanol as its alcohol base – between 80% to 100% proof – this is highly volatile.

This means that once exposed to air outside its contained environment, it is liable to evaporate very quickly.

As alcohol is the foundation of most perfumes, you do not want this. Without alcohol, you’ll be left with an oily mess that doesn’t smell good either.

Fixatives help with this, as they are mostly heavier, stable ingredients that are unlikely to change from their original form.

Since the other ingredients bind to them, they won’t break apart as easily due to this stable state.

Of all the fixatives in perfume, musk is one of the most stable and long-lasting, making it perfect for not only enhancing the smell of your perfume but for keeping it stable and ready for use for years.

What Does Musk Smell Like?

Musk is actually kind of hard to describe. It is not that it doesn’t have a particular smell, it is more that that smell can change slightly from person to person.

Almost all scents in the world appeal to different people and are subjective, but musk is particularly inclined this way.

This is possibly because it was genetically designed to attract other members of the species of animal the musk gland belonged to, and, as such, it is pleasant to different people because they are attracted to similar smells.

However, there are certain smells that are intimately tied with the musk smell.

For starters, it is said to be incredibly complex and contains definite notes of feral, animalistic tones with a loamy, earthy smell underneath.

In a way, it is a bit similar to body odor or skin, but less sharp and more alluring.

The synthetic and vegetation based varieties of musk are not so alluring and while they smell delightful, they do not possess that same carnal nature to them.

Part of the reason musk might smell good to people is that it smells like a person, instead of an odor disguising a person’s scent.

After all, we are, by nature, animals, and we use scent to determine things we like and don’t like.

This even includes other people and even if we do it subconsciously, we may be attracted to someone by their scent.


Musk is a smell that is used in perfumes to help create a smell that is incredibly attractive to humans in general, and it is also used as a fixative to make sure that perfume is more stable and lasts longer.

Overall, this makes musk an incredibly complex ingredient of perfume and incredibly important to its production.

Without musk, we may not even have a perfume industry, as its fixative properties have been used for thousands of years and continue to be used to this day, albeit through synthetic rather than animal means.