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Moschus moschiferus, Siberian musk deer

Musk is the name originally given to a substance with a penetrating odor obtained from a gland of the male musk deer, which is situated between its back/rectal area. The substance has been used as a popular perfume fixative since ancient times and is one of the most expensive animal products in the world. The name, originated from Sanskrit muṣká meaning "testicle," has come to encompass a wide variety of substances with somewhat similar odors although many of them are quite different in their chemical structures. They include glandular secretions from animals other than the musk deer, numerous plants emitting similar fragrances, and artificial substances with similar odors.[1]

Until the late 19th century, natural musk was used extensively in perfumery until economic and ethical motives led to the adoption of synthetic musk, which is used almost exclusively.[2] The organic compound primarily responsible for the characteristic odor of musk is muscone.

Modern use of natural musk pods is limited to Traditional Chinese medicine.


Natural sources


Musk deer

"Musk-cat", woodcut from Hortus Sanitatis, 1490

Musk was unknown in classical antiquity and reference to it does not appear until the 5th century when it is mentioned in the Talmud (Brachot 43.) as an animal-based fragrance. The 6th-century Greek explorer Cosmas Indicopleustes mentioned it as a product obtained from India.[3] Soon afterwards Arab and Byzantine perfume makers began to use it, and it acquired a reputation as an aphrodisiac.[3] Under the Abbasid Empire of Arabs it was highly regarded, and the caliphs of Baghdad used it lavishly. In the early 9th century, Al-Kindi included it in a large number of his perfume recipes and it became one of the important luxury items brought by Arabian ships from the East.[3] The etymology of the name musk, originating from Sanskrit muṣká via Middle Persian mušk, Late Greek μόσχος (moschos), Late Latin muscus, Middle French musc and Middle English muske,[1][4] hints at its trade route.

The musk deer belongs to the family Moschidae and lives in Pakistan, India, Tibet, China, Siberia and Mongolia. To obtain the musk, the deer is killed and its gland, also called "musk pod", is removed. It is dried either in the sun, on a hot stone, or by immersion in hot oil. Upon drying, the reddish-brown paste turns into a black granular material called "musk grain", which is used for alcoholic solutions. The aroma of the tincture becomes more intense during storage and gives a pleasant odor only after it is considerably diluted. No other natural substance has such a complex aroma associated with so many contradictory descriptions; however, it is usually described abstractly as animalic, earthy and woody[2] or something akin to the odor of baby's skin.[5]

Good musk is of a dark purplish color, dry, smooth and unctuous to the touch, and bitter in taste. The grain of musk will distinctly scent millions of cubic feet of air without any appreciable loss of weight, and its scent is not only more penetrating but more persistent than that of any other known substance. In addition to its odoriferous principle, it contains ammonia, cholesterol, fatty matter, a bitter resinous substance, and other animal principles.

The best quality is Tonkin musk from Tibet and China, followed by Assam and Nepal musk, while Carbadine musk from Russian and Chinese Himalayan regions are considered inferior.[5] Obtaining one kilogram (2.2 lb) of musk grains requires between thirty and fifty deer, making musk tinctures highly expensive. At the beginning of the 19th century, Tonkin musk grains cost about twice their weight in gold.[5]

Musk has been a key constituent in many perfumes since its discovery, being held to give a perfume long-lasting power as a fixative. Despite its high price, musk tinctures were used in perfumery until 1979, when musk deers were protected as an endangered species by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). Today the trade quantity of the natural musk is controlled by CITES but illegal poaching and trading continues.[5] An illegal shipment of 700 kilograms (1,500 lb) of Chinese musk from the musk deer was seized in Japan in 1987, an amount corresponding to approximately 100,000 deer killed.[6]

Other animals

Ondatra zibethicus, the muskrat

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), a rodent native to North America, has been known since the 17th century to secrete a glandular substance with a musky odor.[3] A chemical means of extracting it was discovered in the 1940s, but it did not prove commercially worthwhile.[3]

Glandular substances with musk-like odor are also obtained from the Musk Duck (Biziura lobata) of southern Australia, the muskox, the musk shrew, the musk beetle (Aromia moschata), African Civet (Civettictis civetta), the musk turtle, the alligator of Central America, and from several other animals.

In crocodiles, there are two pairs of musk glands, one pair situated at the corner of the jaw and the other pair in the cloaca.[7] Musk glands are also found in snakes.


Some plants such as Angelica archangelica or Abelmoschus moschatus produce musky smelling macrocyclic lactone compounds. These compounds are widely used in perfumery as substitutes for animal musk or to alter the smell of a mixture of other musks.

The plant sources include musk flower (Mimulus moschatus), the muskwood (Olearia argophylla) of the Guianas and West Indies, and the seeds of Abelmoschus moschatus (musk seeds).

Artificial compounds

Galaxolide, a polycyclic musk commonly found in laundry detergents to mask the smell of the detergent chemicals. It is also the aroma compound in laundry detergents responsible for giving washed laundry the "clean scent" that consumers have learned to expect.

Since obtaining the deer musk requires killing the endangered animal, nearly all musk fragrance used in perfumery today is synthetic, sometimes called "white musk". They can be divided into three major classes — aromatic nitro musks, polycyclic musk compounds, and macrocyclic musk compounds.[2] The first two groups have broad uses in industry ranging from cosmetics to detergents. However, the detection of the first two chemical groups in human and environmental samples as well as their carcinogenic properties initiated a public debate on the use of these compounds and a ban or reduction of their use in many regions of the world. Macrocyclic musk compounds are expected to replace them since these compounds appear to be safer.[2]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary: musk". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2007-04-07.  
  2. ^ a b c d Rimkus, Gerhard G. (Ed.); Cornelia Sommer (2004). "The Role of Musk and Musk Compounds in the Fragrance Industry". Synthetic Musk Fragrances in the Environment (Handbook of Environmental Chemistry). Springer. ISBN 3540437061.  
  3. ^ a b c d e Groom, Nigel (1997). New Perfume Handbook. Springer. pp. 219–220. ISBN 0751404039.  
  4. ^ Chantraine, Pierre (1990). Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque. Klincksieck. pp. 715. ISBN 2-252-03277-4.  
  5. ^ a b c d Rowe, David J. (Ed.); Philip Kraft (2004). "Chapter 7. Aroma Chemicals IV: Musks". Chemistry and Technology of Flavours and Fragrances. Blackwell. ISBN 084932372X.  
  6. ^ Edmonds, Richard Louis (Ed.); James Harkness (2000). "Recent Trends in Forestry and Conservation of Biodiversity in China". Managing the Chinese Environment (Studies on Contemporary China). Oxford University Press. pp. 191. ISBN 0198296355.  
  7. ^ Wareham, D.C. (2005). Elsevier's Dictionary of Herpetological and Related Terminology. Elsevier Science. pp. 129. ISBN 0444518630.  

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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