If your nose has been twitched by a resurgence of musk, it’s not your imagination. Here’s why musk fragrances are everywhere and the best ones to try. But, first: what is musk scent made from anyway?
According to Google Trends data, searches for musk perfume have increased more than 100 percent in recent months. And there’s good reason musk is back. Just like styles ebb and flow (are skinny jeans back yet, by the way?), so do fragrances. After all, they’re as indicative of the times as anything.
In the 1950s, for example, the floral Nina Ricci L’air du Temps was a top-seller. It was post World War II times, the nuclear family had women leaning into femininity and soft florals fit the bill.
By the 1970s, the less overtly feminine fragrances like oak moss and musk were popular for their earthiness—a nod to the counterculture movement of the time. Clean beauty pioneer Aveda launched its first natural fragrance, and gender-inclusive scents were quickly becoming popular, too.
Which is why it’s no surprise that musk is back in a big way. The 1970s are having a resurgence in our food, fashion, and culture—even psychedelics are back. And some of the not-so-great bits of the decade are back, too. Will Smith’s Oscar’s slap echoed John Wayne’s 1973 outburst. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has many parallels to the Vietnam War. And there is still an urgent need for environmental stewardship and climate action.
What is musk scent?
While the name musk comes from its original source—a musk gland found in deer—that practice is now banned and musk fragrances are mostly made in a lab, but perfumers are also blending botanicals to mirror the scents. It’s that animal origin though that makes people think of musk as overpowering and heavy, when that’s often not the case.
Synthetic musk has some caveats, though. It can often include ingredients linked to human health and environmental issues. Both nitromusks (moskene, musk xylene, musk ambrette and musk ketone), and polycystic musks (galxaolide, tonalide, and cashmeran) are restricted in the EU. Others include macrocylic musks (muscone, ambrettolide) and aclicylic musks (helvetolide, romandolide).
Synthetic musk has been found in human fat and breast milk and can remain there for years. The scents are estrogen disruptors that can cause reproductive issues, metabolic issues, and increase the risk of certain types of cancer. The chemicals also persist in the environment, accumulating in aquatic environments as well as air and soil.
There are natural musk alternatives, coming from botanicals including angelica root, tobacco, labdanum, ylang ylang, and rose, as well as combinations of scents including jasmine, lavender, and geranium. The most coveted natural musk scent comes from the ambrette seed, but it’s prohibitively expensive and used sparingly.
What does musk smell like?
Musk scents can be quite subtle, even powdery. They serve as balancing notes that bring warmth and depth to a fragrance.
You’ll find musk in a number of fragrances as middle or bottom notes to help tie the scent together.
Some experts describe musk as having a skin-like scent, especially skin coming just out of water. And bucking its masculine, earthy past, some perfumers are pairing it with florals like rose for well-rounded scents.
Clean musk fragrances
Looking for some clean musk fragrances to try? These are great scents to start with.
1. Le Labo Another 13
From the clean scent gurus at Le Labo, Another 13 was developed in 2010 as an exclusive for AnOther Magazine. The result is a provocative, mystifying scent that uses a synthetic animal musk for a deep soulful base along with jasmine, moss and ambrette seeds absolute. Like all of Le Labo’s scents, Another 13 borders on addictive. Each batch is made at time of purchase from the highest quality plant-based ingredients and never comes with gender recommendations.
2. D.S. & Durga Rose Atlantic
A floral gender-inclusive fragrance with top notes of citrus and petals, middle notes of linden, dune grass, and rose accord, and bottom notes of muscone, saltwater and white moss. It’s summer in a bottle. D.S. & Durga make perfume and cologne in small batches using premium-sourced raw materials. All scents are created exclusively in-house and relies on herbal wisdom, native ritual medicine, lore and legends, historical movements, and Americana.
3. Henry Rose Sheep’s Clothing
New to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Henry Rose family but fitting right in comes Sheep’s Clothing eau de parfum made with the brand’s commitment to Laboratoire Monique Rémy pure and natural extracts, the scents bring transparency, and commitment to environmental management and sustainable development. Its newest scent brings everything you want in a fragrance: floral, woody, and a hint of spice. Top notes of pink peppercorn and rose settle into Egyptian oranger flower, Turkish rose absolute, and orris, and bottom notes deliver amber woods, ambrette absolute, and musk.
4. Phlur Missing Person
From the clean fragrance favorite, Phlur delivers a warm, sunny scent with deep musk and citrus notes. Made without artificial colors, phthalates, formaldehyde or formaldehyde releasers, among other harmful chemicals, you won’t notice anything is missing here. Missing Persons delivers ints of floral jasmine and orange blossom mix with transparent woods for a truly provocative scent you’ll want to linger in.
5. Ellis Brooklyn Myth
Airy and breezy, Ellis Brooklyn’s Myth bursts with jasmine petals and tiger orchid for a warm and woody scent. Top notes ofergamot, ambrette seeds, and cassis, middle notes of tiger orchid, pink lotus, and jasmine petals, and bottom notes of patchouli, liquid musks, and white cedarwood. If cozy were a scent, this would be it. Like all of Ellis Brooklyn’s scents, it’s free from parabens and phthalates, and comes in recyclable glass with a biodegradable cap.