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Natural and Synthetic Musk

The word “musk” can be found in almost every perfume description. What do you imagine when you read it? Is it a gentle and soft, almost imperceptible aroma? Or a revolting animal urine smell?

Historically, the word musk from mu?ká comes from Sanskrit meaning 'testicle' and refers to the fragrant secret of the apocrine glands of the male musk deer (Moschus moschiferus), a small (10-13 kg) and timid deer species different from other deer because of its fangs, long ears and lack of horns. Different species of musk deer live in the mountain landscape and in the conifer forests (taiga) of Russia's easternmost part and Siberia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Korea, Nepal, India and Afghanistan, among others. Male deer use musk to mark their territory and to attract females in December-January. After mating, the musk deer hunting season in Russia opens, which lasts through February and March. Hunting the male deer is limited to 1,500 head per year (2009) and hunting the doe is prohibited.

Musk was the main product of deer hunting. The hides were by-products and the flesh was not used because of its strong musky odor. The dead animal's gland was cut off along with a piece of skin and quickly dried in the sun or on a hot stove. The smell in this process is terribly urine-like. Dried glands weighing from 10 to 30 grams were the standard product form. For use in perfume production, the pods were soaked in water to remove the fur and skin, after which the black-brown fatty musk grains were taken out. These powdered granules were then soaked in ethanol to obtain musk tincture. For example, Jacques Guerlain and Ernest Beaux used musco tincture instead of pure ethanol to dilute their concentrate in their final step of perfume production. In the Islamic world, musk powder is mixed with sandalwood oil for Musk Attars.

"The best quality was Tonquin musk from Tibet and China, directly followed by Assam and Nepal musk, while Carbadine musk from Russian and Chinese Himalayan regions was seen as inferior. To obtain 1 kg of musk granules, between 30 and 50 animals had to be fed. are sacrificed, and so musk tinctures were very expensive perfume ingredients. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the price of Tonquin musk granules was about twice their weight in gold. But despite this high price, perfumers continued to use musk tinctures until about 1979, when the "Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)", as well as various involved governments, passed laws that would protect musk deer from extinction. Today, natural musk is traded in the legal amount, but unfortunately also obtained from poaching and illegal trade, and is for use almost exclusively in traditional East Asian medicine."

For hygienic reasons, the use of natural musk in perfume and cosmetic production is no longer permitted. However, it is still widely used in traditional folk medicine.

These medical beliefs have deep historical roots: musk was used in ancient Ayurveda, from which advanced recipes partially seeped into Tibetan and Chinese medicine.
Gradually, musk gained international fame as an aphrodisiac as Indian and Chinese musk caravans made it available to Persian, Byzantine and Arabic healers and perfumers, and its sex appeal and mysterious reputation grew in step with its price from the sixth to the ninth centuries.


In its pure form, the dried secretion has a pungent and revolting animal odor, with beastly and ammonia notes resembling urine and castoreum. A weaker musk tincture allows for more exploration, discovering a rich variety of additional scent notes that appear when the animal aroma wears off. Something attractive, lively and cheerful appears after the repulsive smell of ammonia. "Chemical" is replaced by "warm" and "natural", something sharp and bitter is replaced with something sweet, leathery and balsamic, as well as castoreum-like nuances, slightly oily, chocolatey, earthy, powdery, woody, wet and sweaty aromas.

There are also other musk-like animals, as well as plants, named in the group labeled moschatal by biologists: the musk ox, musk beetle, musk rat, and musk crocodile. These all have a strong odor, but it is not from their natural musk glands.

The musk ox, for example, has no special apocrine glands and just smells quite strong on its own. Beavers and muskrats have a scent of castoreum and civetone respectively and crocodiles give off a pheromone-like substance with a sweet scent resembling the scent of roses.

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