Musk fragrances have come a long way from the days when this perfume staple involved cruelty to animals.
This post may have affiliate links, meaning we earn a small commission on purchases through the links (at no extra cost to you). This does not change our opinion but does help support the site. Thank you!
Before it was banned in the 1970s and protected by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the male musk deer was hunted almost to extinction for the natural musk pod found under the skin of its abdomen.
Castoreum (from beavers) and civetone (from African civets) were also prized for their musk.
Nowadays, a range of substitutes, synthetics and naturals can produce the same effect – as a fixative and sensual animalic – in a multitude of ways.
This selection of best musk fragrances covers a range of styles (from clean white to dirty) and budgets.
Where known, the name of the perfumer is included in brackets after the name of the perfume.
Our Shortlist for Best Musk Fragrances
We’re having a 70s flashback with these cheap ’n cheerful classics.
Released in 1972, Jovan Musk For Women is the fresher of the two, with notes of bergamot, neroli and jasmine.
While we can’t vouch for their apparent irresistible sex appeal – look up the original ads for a good laugh – we can tell you they’re both eminently unisex and give way more expensive musks a run for their money.
L’artisan Parfumeur Mûre Et Musc EDT (Jean-francois Laporte)
Kudos to Jean-Francois Laporte, who pioneered the niche industry before such a thing even existed. The founder of Sisley launched his own company in the 1970s and its debut fragrance is a bona fide musk classic.
It opens with the bright citrus tones of lemon. The herbal aromatics of basil is also discernible.
The tart fruitiness of blackberry – then a novelty, but now a staple in perfumery – is enhanced by clean white musks, while oakmoss gives it a dash of earthiness.
The 1993 version, Mûre et Musc Extrême EDP, with its blackcurrant emphasis, is also worth exploring.
The debut fragrance release (1981) from the British beauty company has the honour of being the gateway to the world of perfume for countless fans. From start to finish it lays on the white musk.
It begins with spicy lily and sweet ylang-ylang. Notes of jasmine and rose bring a fresh aspect.
It’s at its best when the iris comes through and accentuates the powdery musk with beautifully comforting results.
The Body Shop White Musk For Men EDT is also an option, but nothing beats the original, which unsurprisingly remains the brand’s top seller.
Frédéric Malle Musc Ravageur EDP (Maurice Roucel)
The name alone conjures all sorts of torrid imagery. The scent itself – part of the launch collection of modern classics (Lipstick Rose, Iris Poudre, En Passant) in 2000 that established the Paris-based brand’s perfume credentials – does not disappoint.
The fresh and aromatic opening is deceptively innocent, with notes of bergamot, mandarin and lavender.
It shifts into warm and sensual mode with an exemplary amber accord –rich with sweet vanilla and resinous spice – partnered with oodles of powdery musk.
Sandalwood and patchouli maintain the musky vibe in the drydown to complete this supremely sexy scent.
Launched in 1963 and apparently based on a formula from the 1920s, Kiehl’s Original Musk is the American brand’s most well-known fragrance. It’s a straightforward composition but works a treat.
The fresh citrus intro features notes of bergamot and orange blossom, followed by a floral display of lily, rose, ylang-ylang and neroli notes.
The musk is quite medicinal in character, which is appropriate when you consider that this brand started out as an apothecary.
It’s softened with the addition of tonka nut and patchouli notes in the drydown.
The effect is surprisingly skanky and dirty, not at all crowd-pleasing. Which probably explains why we love this one so much.
Escentric Molecules Molecule 02 EDP (Geza Schoen)
We always enjoy releases from this brand on two levels: their fascinating educational value and wonderful wearability. This 2008 launch is no different.
It’s all about Ambroxan, the synthetic version of ambergris, the extremely rare and precious substance that’s produced by the sperm whale.
In its unadulterated form in this EDP, it’s a fresh yet sensual take on the musk theme.
Le Labo Ambrette 9 EDP (Michel Almairac)
This 2006 release from the NYC-based niche brand is all the proof you need fruity fragrances needn’t be sticky sweet. They can actually be clinical, cool and as chic as hell.
Ambrette (also known as musk mallow) is a natural form of musk derived from the seeds of a tropical plant. It’s undoubtedly the star of this creation, but the mix of citrus and fruit (particularly pear) makes a notable contribution too.
It’s a soft take on the fruity musk theme and strikes a deft balance between slightly sweet and sour.
The French niche brand describes this 2015 release from its Magnetic Blends Collection as “the sheer mystery of a molecule infused with the pheromone power of animal musk”.
We describe it as musk and more musk, of the powdery, warm and slightly animalic variety. However, we’re still waiting for the pheromonic effect.
Still, it’s great on its own or layered with another fragrance for extra musky oomph.
We’re loving the latest release from the house, Initio Musk Therapy EDP, with its floral infusion.
Diptyque Fleur De Peau EDP (Olivier Pescheux)
Launched in 2018, Fleur de Peau by Diptyque triumphed in the Perfume Extraordinaire and Best New Women’s Fragrance categories at the 2019 Fragrance Foundation Awards in London. One sniff of this EDP and you’ll understand why.
The fresh and rosy accents of pink peppercorns open the scent and then it’s the turn of iris, with its cool powderiness on beautiful display.
What really makes this fragrance special is its use of Ambrettolide, the synthetic musky molecule known for its smooth, pear-ish qualities, in combination with clean musks.
It’s luxuriously romantic stuff.
Guerlain Les Absolus D’orient Musc Noble EDP (Thierry Wasser)
Officially, this 2018 release from the French brand’s top-notch Les Absolus d’Orient Collection opens with notes of pink peppercorn, saffron, and geranium, but we get a thoroughly addictive and enticing metallic whiff. What a start!
The real focus of the fragrance is musk and rose, and what a wonderful combo it is with its sensual and sophisticated powderiness.
It gathers depth with the drydown which features an amber accord and cedarwood. Cistus adds an animalic leather undercurrent.
With its metallic vibe, this is bold and distinctive stuff. We wouldn’t want it any other way!
Chanel Les Exclusifs De Chanel 1957 EDP (Olivier Polge)
The 2019 addition to the upmarket Les Exclusifs de Chanel private collection is undoubtedly a Chanel creation. It has a deceptive simplicity about it.
The opening has a fresh, clean, almost-soapy quality, courtesy of the bergamot and aldehyde notes. Orange blossom and jasmine bring a delicate floral aspect, while orris adds sensual powderiness.
There’s also an interesting contrast between spicy pink pepper and coriander and slightly sweet vanilla and honey notes. Further interest is added by woodiness in the drydown, thanks to the cedar note.
None of these elements dominate the scent, as Chanel 1957 is really about its beautiful musk accord. Present throughout, it gives the fragrance a cosy, easy-going elegance.
Narciso Rodriguez For Her EDT (Christine Nagel & Francis Kurkdjian)
If there’s one brand (designer or otherwise) that does musk to perfection, it’s Narciso Rodriguez. This 2003 release by the perfumers Christine Nagel & Francis Kurkdjian is where it all started for the American designer brand.
It opens with the warmth of fresh African orange blossom and fruity osmanthus notes. Bergamot adds a touch of citrus crispness.
The large dose of musk, with soft amber in support, is unashamedly sensual and surprisingly potent for an EDT.
The drydown is earthier in style, with notes of vetiver and patchouli.
Setting the standard for all Narciso Rodriguez fragrances to follow, it bagged the British FiFi Award for Best New Fragrance in 2003 and the Fragrance of the Year/Women’s Nouveau Niche award in 2004.
Released in 2006, the sweeter EDP version is also highly recommended.
Montblanc Signature EDP (Guillaume Flavigny And Nathalie Gracia-cetto)
Just when you think you know a brand, a pleasant surprise like this 2020 release comes along. Montblanc is known for its crowd-pleasers and this new pillar is already a consumer favourite.
It opens with the sweet and juicy citrus hues of clementine, followed by a bouquet of peony, ylang-ylang and magnolia notes. The latter’s prominence builds on the intro’s fresh and luxurious vibe.
It doesn’t take long for the fragrance’s main element – white musk – to come through. Luxurious yet clean, it works in tandem with a big creamy shot of vanilla and benzoin.
Signature is a fairly straightforward composition – one in which you can actually smell the seven listed notes. It’s effective all the same.
Molton Brown Milk Musk EDP (Maïa Lernout)
Many of us probably know the British brand’s superb bath and body products. What’s less well known is their quality fragrance offerings, such as this 2020 release.
The opening belongs to the citric spiciness of elemi resin.
A milk accord – warm and softly sweet – is blended with musk and vanilla to create an ambience that’s soothing and sensual. Ambroxan adds to the muskiness.
The comfy vibe continues through to the drydown, where benzoin and tonka bean are given the subtle vanilla-spice treatment.
It’s also available as an EDT with notes of pear and peach if you want a fruitier interpretation of musk.
Giorgio Armani Armani Privé Musc Shamal Intense EDP (Julie Massé)
Since its launch in 2004 with classics such as Bois d’Encens and Pierre de Lune, the Armani Privé range has been remarkably consistent with its quality.
Inspired by the summer winds of Iraq and the Persian Gulf, this 2019 release is an opulent oriental.
It casts a seductive spell right from the start with soapy aldehydes that balance freshness and sensuality with aplomb.
A large dose of musk with animalic appeal gets powdery support from rose and an amber accord, while vanilla adds a delicate touch of sweetness.
Expect to pay a lot more than usual for this beauty, but you’ll be rewarded with luxury at its best.
Richard Goller is a fragrance and grooming blogger. His blog is called Fragroom. A senior editor with 20 years' experience, his blog allows him to combine two of his passions: engaging content and the always-intriguing world of fragrances. When he isn't blogging, you'll find Richard indulging in his newly found passion for balcony gardening.