What is Musk and Where Does it Originate?
Animal sourced musks have been used in perfumes and body products throughout history, often as a perfume fixative, within medicines, or in incense material.
The term “musk” in an ingredient list isn’t inherently a problem for conservation efforts, since it can sometimes refer to a synthetic or “sustainably” farmed musk. Although, some sources claim that “the complex odor profile and effect of musk cannot be duplicated in a lab.” (source)
Musks can come from the scent glands of a variety of animals. Deer musk is a common issue for conservation efforts, since it comes from the male musk deer, which has been hunted nearly to extinction. Another common musk source is the African civet cat.
If a product has been flagged for musk, then further investigation is recommended.
Why is Musk Bad?
In terms of conservation efforts, musks sourced from the male musk deer seems to be the primary concern, since some species of musk deer have been hunted nearly to extinction:
“Seven species of musk deer are found in Asia, and all are on the decline. Thousands of male musk deer have been killed for their musk pods, a gland that produces the musk that gives the animals their name and has been used in perfumes. The musk, a brown, waxy substance, can be extracted from live animals, but “musk gatherers,” who can get around $200 to $250 per gland from foreign traders, find it easier to kill the deer. Though perfume makers have found synthetic alternatives to musk, the hunting hasn’t stopped. Musk deer meat is considered a local delicacy, and musk is still used in traditional medicines for treating cardiac, circulatory and respiratory problems.” (source)
Musk sourced from other animals such as the African civet cat isn’t without concerns. “These beautiful animals can be held in cages for up to 15 years in order for their glands to be ‘milked’ by scraping the gland while the animal is still alive. Otherwise, the cat will be killed and the glands removed to take the secretion.” (source)
What Should I Do?
There are plenty of perfumes and products made without any sort of musk at all! Since not all “musk” ingredients in products indicate the presence of animal musk, we do recommend more investigation by the user. However, since there are plenty of products available without musk, and it can often be difficult to trace the origin and nature of a musk, some consumers might prefer to avoid it altogether.
Smithsonian Magazine: Endangered & Threatened Species Used in Traditional Medicine