Friday, November 17, 2017

Why You Probably Don’t Know What Musk Really Smells Like

One of the big dogs of the perfume world is also a powerhouse of confusion. What the hell is musk? Do you know? Are you sure?

First, let’s disambiguate the basics. Musky and Musty are not the same thing. Musky is kind of like an animal smell – warm, sexy, intoxicating. Musty is related to moldy, it’s the smell of a dark hamper. Wet and dark, that’s musty. Thing is, body odor can be both musky AND musty, and this is one of the places where the two get intertwined. We can go on and on with this, because there’s this thing I call ‘river musk,’ which is absolutely intoxicating, to me at least, and is the by-product of stuff that lives in the river. Oceans have it too, but it tends to be mixed with dead fish. It’s a secondary metabolite, a kind of seaweed pheromone, which means it’s very similar to animal musk in that it’s a pheromone/chemosignal, but from plants. And yet, it’s related to wet things.

Parenthetically, body odor is actually not musty, for the most part. Usually it’s your dirty clothes that are musty, because they’ve been sitting in a pile on the floor, dark because they’re balled up, and damp because you just took them off, and your body is warm, and the air around you is less warm, so the water vapor in the air condenses on the clothes…either that or you were sweating just before you took them off. Either way, it’s your clothes that smell musty. That being said, we should also note that your armpits can get musty for the same reasons (it’s pretty dark in there). That isn’t what we call body odor, however.

Okay, so we got that out of the way. Sort of. Now for the anosmia part. Anosmia means you can’t smell something. Half the population is anosmic to something, and there are more people anosmic to musk than most other smells. Musk is a really big molecule, one of the biggest we can smell, and for some reason, bigger molecules tend to be invisible to us, but not in the way other anosmias work. It seems to go in-and-out.

Take the behemoth of the synthetic musks, Iso-E Super, which is so super that a perfume was made with only this as its only ingredient (and for non fragrance enthusiasts, that is totally unheard of). Lots of people can’t smell it. Saskia Wilson-Brown of the Institute for Art and Olfaction gave me a sample. I couldn’t smell it. Then I could. Then I couldn’t again. Anyway, because musk has this problem, or because we have this problem with musk, perfumers tend to use lots of musks in their formulas, to make sure that people will be able to smell at least one of the musks in there.

Next problem – the laundry detergent industry. Musks have this attribute where they do really well in fabrics and with detergents. They hold on for a long time (because they’re so big, as a molecule, among other reasons). They’re all over the world of laundry detergents; just about every laundry detergent smells like musk. But you probably don’t know that. You think that smell is the ‘smell of fresh laundry,’ not that of musk. When I tell people this, they don’t believe me, probably because they would rather not associate the smell of sweaty animal bodies with their freshly-laundered sheets. But alas, there it is: the smell of dirty is now the smell of clean.

What’s worse is that these sheets eventually end up in a dark hamper, and smell musty as well as musky. And so now you’re totally screwed. 

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