What the perfume ads don’t tell you: your cologne smells of poo

Image: Aveda Corporation via flickr
Image: Aveda Corporation via flickr


We’ve already seen how nature’s finest aromas can be artificially made, but these sweet scents are only part of the story. Other ingredients that make perfume smell so wonderful come from rather unlikely sources – namely, animal vomit and a deer’s rear end.

Whale vomit

Although it looks like dough and smells like dung, ambergris is one of the most valuable naturally occurring substances on Earth. Fetching up to $20,000 per kilogram, it is a substance that comes from sperm whale vomit. It sometimes lands on a beach or is fished out of the water. In the fragrance industry, it is used as a perfume fixative, helping the sweet alcohols and esters to be released gradually, prolonging those flowery aromas. Despite its initial hideous odour, ambergris develops a sweet and earthy aroma as it ages, further adding to the perfume’s effect.

Faecal chemicals

Moving to the other end of the animal, another common addition to perfumes is a chemical called ‘skatole’, which occurs naturally in poo. Skatole isn’t one of those innocent chemicals that has simply fallen in with a bad crowd; this thing truly stinks! It gives human faeces its unique aroma and smells so bad that even the U.S army use it as a non-lethal weapon. We are reminded, however, of that age-old adage: “everything in moderation”. Almost unbelievably, small amounts of skatole give off a flowery aroma that contributes to the appeal of jasmine and orange blossom. (It even gets added to some fruit-flavoured foods, to enhance their taste and aroma!)

Rectal gland secretions and ‘sex scents’

‘Musk’ is the bizarre substance released from the rectal gland of the musk deer that is used in perfumery as a fixative. This substance gives off that so-called ‘musky’ smell that highlights the importance of sex in perfumery. These ‘sex scents’ are not necessarily things you would think of as pleasant smells, but their connotations are enough to catch the nose of passers-by. (Read the next post to find out if ‘sex scents’ really do attract the opposite sex!) In a similar fashion, cumin is used for its apparent similarity in smell to sweat. Perfume manufacturer Tom Ford even once asked for his product, Black Orchid, which is listed as a perfume for women, to smell “like a man’s crotch”.

Mercifully, the majority of perfumes now use synthetic versions of these bizarre chemicals. We doff our hats and pinch our noses to the brave (and possibly mad!) pioneers who first discovered them.

Next: Do musk and perfumes really attract the opposite sex?


By Michael McKenna


Kafkaesque. (December 2012). Modern Trends in Perfume: Part II – Sweat, Genitalia, Dirty Sex & Decay. Kafkaesqueblog. http://www.kafkaesqueblog.com/2012/12/07/modern-trends-in-perfume-part-ii-sweat-genitalia-dirty-sex-decay/. (Accessed 10 March 2015).

Hannah Betts. (December 2008). Let us spray. The Guardian [website]. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/dec/06/perfume-ingredients. (Accessed 10 March 2015).

Article by Michael Mckenna

March 12, 2015

Mike is currently doing a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Manchester. When not talking about proteins, he watches an obscene amount of films and enjoys the odd pub quiz.

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