The Problem with Synthetic Musk

Posted by Liz Cook on

Musk is a fragrance note in almost every (if not all) perfumes on the market today. Musks give longevity and help to harmonise a perfume, lending a soft, warm human character to a fragrance and smoothing rough edges.

Research shows that most perfume buyers love a scent with a high musk content, and it is not uncommon to find musks as 10-20% of the fragrance load in many modern perfumes.

A history of musk

You probably don’t think of animal excretions when you see the word musk; more than likely you’re imagining old-fashioned candy musk sticks or Lifesavers.

But the true origin of musk is actually not so pretty. Think deer testical, beaver anal sections and sperm whale vomit. Repulsed much?

Up until the late 20th century, musk deer where hunted for their prized “pods”, which were then dried in the sun or over a hot stove, producing a strong urinous smell, then the dried granules were extracted, powdered and soaked in ethanol for use in perfumery.

In 1979 musk deer became a protected species, at which time the use of synthetic musk took over as an alternative to deer musk. (Note: musk deer are still hunted in some regions, although limited by law, and their musk is used in traditional Chinese medicine).

In its pure form, the scent of animal musk is said to be sharp, repulsive, fatty and animalic, with notes of urine. (Perfume anyone?) However, on dilution, after the initial ammonia tone, appears warmer sweet leather notes that have been described as “balsamic, chocolately, fatty, earthy, powdery, dry, oily and sweaty”.

Other animal musks that have been, and continue to be used in perfumery and flavouring, include castoreum (beaver anal secretions), ambergris (sperm whale secretions – no longer harvested, but still sourced from beaches around the world) and civet (secretions from the African civet which is held in a cage and stressed to encourage release of anal secretions), but you will never find these labelled on your favourite scent as labelling regulations do not require it.

What is musk in modern perfumery?

Modern musk notes are an abstraction on the original animal musk, and these days a musk note refers to a warm, sweet, sensual powdery smell, with undertones of a natural skin scent.

Common synthetic musks include:

  • Nitromusks eg Moskene, musk xylene* **, musk ambrette, musk ketone,
  • Polycyclic musks eg Galxaolide (HHCB)**, Tonalide**, Cashmeran
  • Macrocylic musks eg muscone, ambrettolide
  • Aclicylic musks eg Helvetolide, Romandolide

*(banned in the EU)

** (some of the most persistent in environment)

Musk notes exploded in popularity in the 1990s during which time several new synthetic musks were developed, and still today musk notes continue to be among the most sought after characteristics for perfume buyers.


The problem with synthetic musk


1. It’s rarely listed on the label.

Trade Secret legislation allows perfume companies to not disclose any ingredients that if listed may give away a fragrance formula to a competitor. (Ridiculous, actually, considering we are in an age of reverse engineering, and finding the formula for any perfume is relatively simple these days).

If it is listed, you may see it listed simply as as ‘Fragrance’, musk ketone, musk, Galaxolide, Tonalide, HHCB or any number of other terms. If a fragrance description lists ‘musk’ or ‘cashmere’, or you can simply detect musk notes in the dry-down, you can guarantee in contains synthetic musks.


2. Synthetic musk poses a risk to your health.

The discovery of musk compounds in human fat and breast milk in the 1980s and 90s prompted Japan to ban the use of musk xylene and other nitromusks. More recently, in 2011 the EU has banned the use of musk xylene and limited the use of musk ketone and Tonalide.

German researchers who measured human body burdens found musks in the fat of all their subjects and concluded that humans are constantly exposed to these highly stable compounds (Washman, 2005). The United States, Australia and other countries, though, have continued use and sale of these fragrance ingredients.

Although you may not notice any immediate affects from the use of synthetic musks (note: some do cause contact dermatitis or photosensitivity), these substances accumulate in the environment and in your body. Synthetic musks are lipophilic, meaning they tend to deposit themselves in fat tissue, and persist there. These fragrance ingredients have been found in samples of human breast milk, body fat, blood, placenta tissue and neonatal umbilical chords. Research and analysis shows the percentage of synthetic musks found in breast milk have increased over the past 10 years (Reiner et al, 2007).

Synthetic musks are xenoestrogens, which means they mimic the action of oestrogen in your body, and disrupt hormone signalling and actions, potential leading to many hormone-related disease conditions, such as precocious puberty, irregular menstrual cycles, endometriosis, difficulty conceiving, birth defects, breast and ovarian cancers, as well as obesity, type II diabetes, bone growth and blood clotting problems, depression and loss of muscle mass in men (Fucic et al, 2012).


3. Environmental contamination.

Every year over 8000 metric tonnes of synthetic musks are produced worldwide. Because these molecules are highly stable and are only partially biodegradable, they accumulate and remain persistent in the environment, contaminating the aquatic environment, air and soil, and the air inside our homes. These chemicals are toxic to a variety of aquatic organisms and have been found in commonly consumed seafood such as salmon and shrimp.

Why are synthetic musks used?

Synthetic musks have been in use in perfume since the late 19th century, but with the banning of the use of some animals musks, the use of synthetic musk began to really take of in the 1990s.

Synthetic musks are relatively cheap to produce, especially compared to their natural counterparts (consider a cost of around $800 per kg compared to $28,000 for ambrette seed), they are easy to produce and supply is not dependent on environmental factors as it is with botanical musk.

In addition, synthetic musk in perfumery has extraordinary longevity, often persisting on the skin or clothing for several days. 

How to Avoid Synthetic Musks

These ingredients are so prevalent it is very difficult to avoid them unless you avoid the use of commercial fragrances in perfume, toiletries, and air fresheners.

Choosing naturally fragranced products and perfume formulated from natural botanical ingredients guarantees you won't be exposing yourself to hazardous synthetic musks by choice, and you will in turn minimise your body’s chemical burden.

Natural botanical musk

In natural perfumes, a musk note is entirely achievable and can be extraordinarily beautiful, but it usually comes at a high cost. The truest botanical musk comes in the form of ambrette seed, (derived from Hibiscus abelmoschus); its fragrance is described as intensely rich, nutty, musky, floral, somewhat fatty, with nuances of cognac and clary sage, and a tobacco and leather backnote. At a cost of over $28,000 per kg the price can be prohibitively expensive and so is often dosed sparingly if used at all.

Other botanical essences with a musk character include angelica root, labdanum, ylang ylang, rose, tobacco and combinations of others such as jasmine, some lavenders and geranium.



You might like to try these from the ONE SEED collection:






(Looking for references for this article? Find them here.)

← Older Post Newer Post →


healthy living lifestyle natural fragrances perfumery

Natural Swaps for the Top Five Women's Perfumes

By Liz Cook

Let's be honest - if you haven't made the switch to natural or at least cleaner fragrance yet, it's probably because you are totally hooked...

Read more
healthy living lifestyle

Meet Brianna Salerno: Clean Beauty Influencer

By Liz Cook

FULL NAME: Brianna Salerno CURRENT CAREER: Clean Beauty Advocate/ Ambassador/ Actress and Influencer. "I love creating beauty content and think it’s important to stand up...

Read more