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What is musk in perfume? Here’s what to know about the fragrance note

Rachel Lapidos

Rachel LapidosMarch 28, 2020

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Photo: Stocksy/Trinette Reed

In the world of fragrances, scents tend to fall into certain general camps like earthy, floral, fruity, or sweet. Then, there’s the outlier: musk, which happens to be a unique, distinct fragrance that turns heads and can give people a visceral feeling upon catching a whiff.

Though musk has actually been used in fragrances for centuries, the evocative scent has slowly risen to popularity again. “Musk has now become a really trendy scent that’s always been an essential component in personal fragrance,” says Carina Chaz, founder of fragrance brand Dedcool. “It’s usually found in sweet or woodsy, earthy scents, and tends to be a scent that those with advanced fragrance palettes appreciate.” If you’ve ever sniffed a musk fragrance, you’d understand how complex and alluring it is.

Part of understanding musk is knowing where it originally came from.”Traditional musk is an animal byproduct from deer secretion,” says Chaz. Sue Phillips, fragrance expert and founder of Scenterprises custom perfumery, explains that because the scent is animalistic in nature, it has sensual undertones. “These animals secreted a very strong odor, which made other animals sexually aroused,” she says. These days, perfumers use synthetic musk to mimic the scent.

The thing about musk is that it isn’t similar to any other fragrance out there, so it’s tricky to describe. Phillips likens it to body odor, but in a good, non-gross way. “It’s so distinctive, pungent, sexy, and sensual,” she says. “Sometimes people even call it B.O. because, in a way, these odors come from glands.” She points to the ’60s as a time when musk was especially popular, since one staple of the free love movement was to skimp on showering for days on end. “What happens is the perspiration absorbs into the hair, and that’s where a very musky, pungent smell comes from,” says Phillips, though notes that a bottled-up, synthetic musk fragrance will have a smoother, more clean scent to it than, ya know, body musk.

Just as people turn to woodsy scents for grounding, or citrus-based perfume to pep up their mood, musk serves more of an alluring, intoxicating purpose. “Notes in the musk category are grounding, traditional, and oftentimes very sensual,” says Lauren Gannes, formulator of aromatics company Highborn. “Musk is commonly that lasting note that stays behind after the more volatile notes have shifted on.” Since it straddles the line between different fragrance categories, perfumes often use it as a base note or as something you blend with other scents. Either way you wear it, Phillips says that musk is the fragrance equivalent of sex appeal.

Enticed? Keep scrolling to shop musk fragrance for your perfume collection.

Heretic Florgasm Eau de Parfum, $65

Photo: Heretic

With a spritz of this perfume, your nose catches the intoxicating mix of plant-based musk, florals like orange blossom and jasmine, and spicy pink pepper that will have you smelling fresh an alluring all day long.

Dedcool Milk Layering Fragrance, $90

Photo: Dedcool

The Dedcool Milk—which also has notes of bergamot and amber—is meant to layer with your other go-to perfume for an enticing undertone (or you can rock it on its own). Personally, I wear this everyday on top of Dedcool Taunt ($80) and I’m completely obsessed.

By Rosie Jane Rosie Eau de Parfum, $65

Photo: By Rosie

If you love rose, this perfume gives you a gorgeous combo of rose petals and musk for a sweet, floral fragrance that’s subtle but buildable.

Glossier You, $60

Photo: Glossier

The spicy Glossier musk fragrance is known for smelling slightly different on each person. Beauty editor Zoe Weiner (who wears the perfume almost daily) says that it “intoxicating to the point that it makes me dizzy,” and says that one inhale makes her feel “euphoric.” Enough said.

Elizabeth And James Nirvana White Pure Perfume Oil, $27

Photo: Elizabeth and James

A few dabs of this slightly floral, deeply sensual perfume oil gives your skin a sophisticated scent. Musk is a base note, bolstered by peony and muguet.

D.S. & Durga Rose Atlantic, $175

Photo: D.S. & Durga

D.S. & Durga is a fragrance brand created by a husband and wife team in Brooklyn, New York. The Rose Atlantic scent is reminiscent of a fresh, slightly fruity summer wind, with hints of salt water, rose, musk, and lemon. A few spritzes will trick you into thinking that it’s summer all year long. Yes, please.

St. Rose Gypsy Cowboy, $165

Photo: St. Rose

This gorgeous, sustainably-sourced (and clean!) scent is like Stevie Nicks in a bottle: earthy and herbaceous, with notes of musk, pepper, ginger, and cardamom. It’s a rock-star fragrance that intoxicates everyone who catches a whiff.

BTW, here’s everything you’ve ever wanted to know about scent memory. And this is the low-down on patchouli in perfume, another popular scent. 

Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

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