All the Strange Places Fragrances Really Come From
by Natasha Burton
By now, many of us have seen the viral TikTok video about where vanilla flavoring and scent comes from — and if you haven’t, all you need to know is that the sweet smell we love often comes from a gland located smack dab in the middle of a beaver’s nether regions which emits a musky, vanilla-like scent, because of beavers’ diet of bark and leaves.
While this fact is a tad shocking, to say the least, it’s not unusual. In fact, the scents and fragrance additives in many everyday products don’t come from their direct sources. And while fragrance is typically listed as a singular ingredient, it usually denotes a combination of many different ingredients from many sources — some more offbeat than others.
Scents from rose and jasmine, for example, can be very expensive to extract, so many products will include chemical synthetics or copycat ingredients from other sources to create a particular fragrance. Here’s the scoop on all the strange places the ingredients that make up your favorite fragrances could really come from.
Surely you’ve heard of “musk” as a fragrance note. That musk — which is one of the most expensive perfume ingredients — actually comes from a musk deer’s glands (1) (although much of it is made synthetically due to the high price tag on the real thing).
And deer aren’t the only animals that give us fragrance ingredients. As mentioned, some products come from beaver glands — particularly the dried and softened castor sac scent glands located near the beaver’s booty — for vanilla flavoring and fragrance. The civet cat, native to African countries, also produces musk in a gland at the base of its tail that’s sometimes used to add complexity to perfumes (1).
Whale Intestine Juices
Yes, you read that right. One of the most important ingredients used in perfumes, ambergris, comes from the bile secretions of a sperm whale (1). This versatile scent ingredient — which was formerly used in the iconic men’s deodorant Old Spice — is illegal to sell now in the United States because of the whale’s endangered species status. So, it’s another perfume component that often gets replaced by synthetics these days.
Given how pricey pure jasmine (6) can be, some perfumes actually contain an unexpected synthetic swap. Instead of jasmine, some contain a substance called indole (3). Indole is made from coal tar, of all things, and actually has that signature sweet smell when used in small amounts. So when you spray on a jasmine-scented perfume, you may be coating yourself with something that’s definitely not made from a flower.
Bushes and Shrubs
Here’s the good news. Many fragrance ingredients include plants. Patchouli, for instance, is a common base note in perfume (4) but it looks like a typical shrub out in the wild. Part of the mint family, the signature scent comes from the oil in the patchouli plant’s leaves. Another interesting plant found in fragrance ingredient lists is tonka bean (1), which is often used as a less expensive swap for vanilla. Tonka bean is popular in many name-brand perfumes (5) because of its whiffs of almonds, pralines, cloves and cinnamon as well as that sweet vanilla scent (yum).
Know Before You Spritz
Some perfume ingredients swaps are totally benign — like tonka bean instead of vanilla — but not everyone is going to feel cool about spraying on synthetic and animal-derived ingredients.This is why it’s important to always read the labels and ingredients of your favorite products. Check for naturally-derived botanical extracts if you’re trying to stay away from the man-made or animal-derived scents and want to stick with plant-based ingredients instead. Or, opt for fragrance free body and home care products.
- Byrdie - Common Perfume Ingredients A-Z
- PubMed - Safety Assessment of Castoreum Extract as a Food Ingredient
- Byrdie - 11 Mindblowing Facts About Perfume
- The Perfume Society - The Fascinating history of Patchouli
- The Perfume Society - Tonka
- Byrdie - The 6 Most Expensive Perfume Ingredients in the World