Musk Perfume Ingredient: What is It? What Does It Smell Like?

Natural musk smells sensual, rich, and earthy. This scent is used as a base note in perfume and is often described as one of the more animalistic and enticing base notes.

What is Musk?

It’s one of those scents which is hard to pin down—or describe! It’s used by the vast majority of perfumers because of its lingering, subtle smell.

Animal musk derives from the male musk deer, and was harvested from the sex secretion gland. The liquid inside the animal pod would have been used by the deer and sprayed to attract a mate.

Before being used as a perfume ingredient, the pod was dried before being cracked open and the powdery grain removed. This would then be soaked in alcohol to form a tincture which would stand for several months before forming part of the final product.

The discovery of muscone was revolutionary in the perfume industry as it was a compound that contained rings of 15 carbon atoms. Prior to this, rings with more than 8 atoms were unknown and deemed too unstable to exist. 

The discovery was made by Swiss chemist Leopold Ružička, spawning a vast expansion of research into these compounds. Due to this discovery, Ružička received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

The alluring, animalistic smell has also been discovered by perfumers in other animals including the musk cat, muskox, and in the vomit of sperm whales. 

Many of these species are now protected, so it’s usually not found anymore as a fragrance ingredient. Instead, scientists can produce a similar product by using synthetic chemicals. 

What Does Musk Smell Like?

The creation of synthetic musks means it has become even more difficult to pin down the natural smell of the real thing. With no fixed formula, synthetic musks can range from being a clean scent akin to a baby’s skin to powdery musks which have the somewhat repulsive smell of body odor. 

You may find you’re completely anosmic to the smell of musks. Although widely used in perfumery, many people can’t smell them at all. 

A positive effect of moving away from animalic musks to synthetically produced musky perfume is that the odor profile can be tweaked to suit particular fragrances. 

White musks have a fresh, clean smell and are used in washing detergents and soap as well as in the fragrance industry. The scent produced can be quite intense. 

The Eqyptian variant offers a more subtle scent that produces a gentle fragrance. It’s often combined with vanilla and other pleasing aromas to allow for fruity or floral perfumes.

What Scent Family is Musk?

Real musk falls under the Oriental scent family. Fragrances within this family tend to be rich and the fragrance will linger long after it has first been applied. 

The smell of Orientals is often described as sensuous and would be used in perfumes you would wear in the evening as opposed to a lighter, floral, day-time fragrance. They’re often softened with sweeter smells.

The Oriental family can be subdivided into soft oriental, woody oriental, and oriental. 

Soft oriental blends gentle flowery with warm spices, while woody oriental is comprised of earthy accords such as sandalwood mixed with sweeter tones. Oriental, the subcategory musk falls into, is made up of a warm, sweet fragrance with rich undertones.

What are the Benefits of Musk?

As well as creating base undertones, it can be used as a fixative in perfumery ensuring that deserved accords have staying power once the perfume has been spritzed.

Musks also have health-related benefits. It was originally championed in Chinese herbal medicine and has been proven to have anti-inflammatory properties.

When used medically, however, it’s worth noting it is only the variant derived from the deer which provides these benefits. Synthetic versions wouldn’t have the same advantages or uses and could be dangerous to use.

Its use isn’t recommended during pregnancy or lactation (even topically) due to the lack of information available regarding its toxicity. It can also cause allergies, so seek advice from your doctor or physician before application.

Is Musk a Feminine or Masculine Scent?

Equally popular for use in female and male perfume, this distinctive odor produces several aromas. Its use as a fixative saw real musk become a vital ingredient in perfumery for many years.

Best Perfumes with Musk Notes

1. Henry Rose Jake’s House Eau de Parfum

Imagine inhaling a perfect summer’s day. This is what Jake’s House smells like; juicy and bursting with hints of musk, neroli, peony, and jasmine.

2. YSL Libre Eau de Parfum

Unapologetically both masculine and feminine, YSL has created a product that is sensuous and rich, combining lavender and Morrocan orange blossom.

3. Maison Margiela Replica Coffee Break Eau de Toilette

As the name suggests, this perfume is akin to taking a well-deserved coffee break. A warm, spicy aroma that entwines the earthy smells of freshly ground coffee with milk mousse, this heart note of lavender offers an invigorating uplight to this subtle accord. 

4. Chanel Chance Eau de Parfum

Warm yet flowery, white musk is mingled with pink pepper and amber patchouli to create this iconic and popular parfum.

5. Kilian Musk Oud Eau de Parfum

Distinctly feminine in aroma despite the sleek, masculine bottle, Kilian Musk Oud offers a contemporary twist on the classic oud. It blends vibrant coriander, spicy cardamom, and sweet geranium petals with rich, syrupy rum to create a smoky, sensuous liquid. 

The Bottom Line

Musks are both everything and nothing to our skin and senses!

They ooze sensuality and combine for an enticing, rich, alluring, yet hard to pin down smell, allowing for the utmost innovation and creativity in pursuit of the ultimate, high-toned perfume formula.