10 Most Revolting Ingredients Used in Ancient Perfumes
Who doesn’t enjoy a good perfume? Well, at least they are better than enduring some natural human odors! Today, perfumes are a commodity available to millions of people, coming in all sorts of scents and fragrances. The expensive ones will dazzle your senses and twirl your mind, while the common ones will make you more elegant, and more pleasant to be around. But in the ancient past, it wasn’t always so. At the time when perfumes were not yet invented, human bodily odors were a normal thing, and just had to be tolerated. But people began experimenting with artificial scents very early on in history. And some of the ingredients that were used at the time were shocking, if not outright disgusting. Here are 10 most revolting ingredients used in ancient perfumes.
1. Civet, A Curious Cat’s Glandular Secretion
The Civet Cat is a small nocturnal mammal that is native to Africa and parts of Asia. At first glance, it seems like an ordinary mammal of the Viverridae family, and no one suspects their somewhat odd history. You see, the Civet cat was long used as the primary source of civet, a glandular secretion that these creatures produce. Civet is soft and almost a liquid, and is repulsive and almost putrid in its crude form. But even so, it is a type of musk, which made it a common ingredient in early perfumes. When diluted with water, civet has a pleasant and sweet fragrance. In ancient times, civet musk was a common trade ingredient in merchant caravans of Africa, and it always had a good price. The ingredient is still used in perfumery today, and can fetch up to several hundred dollars per kilogram.
2. Ambergris, Puked Out by Whales and Worth a Fortune!
For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, whaling held the place of one of the most dominant industries in the world. Whale-hunting was the only source of whale oil, whale meat, whale ivory, and many other important ingredients. And it was also the source of ambergris - a solid, waxy substance that is produced in the digestive system of sperm whales. And, yes, ambergris was used in perfume making for ages! However, raw ambergris has a fishy, fecal odor that is simply repugnant. It is formed from the secretions of the bile duct in the intestines of sperm whales, and it is believed that it helps the whales excrete hard materials that they might have eaten. Although disgusting at first, when aged and hardened, ambergris has a sweet and earthy scent, which made it a popular ingredient in early perfumes. It also made it quite pricey - in 2021, a lump of ambergris weighing 280 pounds (127 kg) was found, and was estimated to be worth US $1.5 million!
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Sperm whales are now facing extinction due to the advent of large-scale whaling in the 19th century, which viewed whales as a valuable commodity. (Public domain)
3. From Beaver Sacs Comes Castoreum
Generally, you wouldn’t connect beavers with perfumery. But in the early history of perfume-making, beavers were an important source for a valuable ingredient. It is known as Castoreum, and is produced in the special castor sacs of mature beavers. These sacs, combined with urine, are used by the animals to mark their territory. When acquired, it has a powerful and perhaps repulsive odor, and is usually left for up to two years to become more mellow. It was used in perfumery due to its scent that brings to mind leather, as well as musk. In fact, castoreum was commonly used by the great perfume makers such as Chanel, Givenchy, Guerlain, Lancôme, and others, typically in perfumes that had a “leathery” note. Who knows, perhaps you once used a fragrance that had beaver sac secretions in it!
Beavers deposit castoreum on rocks and shorelines to mark territorial boundaries, but its use as a fixative agent in perfume was among the causes of the near extinction of the North American species (Castor canadensis) by 1900. After beavers were trapped and killed, the sacs were removed and dried, either in smoke or in the sun. Drying darkened and hardened the castoreum and reduced its odor. (Encyclopædia Britannica)
4. From 50,000-year-old Poop Straight to Your Perfume - Hyraceum
Would you be surprised if we told you that animal poop used to be a key ingredient of perfume? The Hyrax is a small terrestrial mammal native to Africa and the Middle East, and its poop was a fundamental part of many perfumes. What is interesting is that the hyrax poops at the exact same place every time - over many generations. The result of that are large middens of semi-hardened poop pellets, which can be preserved for more than 50,000 years! And as it hardens, the excrement acquires a unique animalistic fragrance with elements of musk, civet, tobacco, agarwood, and castoreum. And best of all - it is just there to be gathered. The animals are not disturbed and not harmed in any way, it’s just their poop that is needed. And that is not the only benefit of hyrax excrement. As the middens can be many millennia old, scholars can study them to understand all the previous climate shifts and changes in vegetation.
5. Human Sweat can be a Surprisingly Attractive Perfume
It sounds odd, but it is possible - perfume from human perspiration! Perfumists have been experimenting with human sweat for ages, and the results were often surprising. Through special chemical processes and procedures, human sweat can be gathered relatively easily, and used in the making of perfumes. When combined with different fragrances, the scent of sweat cannot be recognized, but its properties still remain. The secret to the attractiveness of such a perfume lies in pheromones. From the dawn of mankind, people have been sexually attracted to bodily odors - sweat especially. It can tell us a lot about a possible mate, and those pesky little pheromones that hide in it can drive us crazy for someone. Perfumists know this secret, and wanted to make their scents as sexy as possible - by adding sweat. Etat Libre d'Orange is a French perfume containing human body secretions, aimed at arousing your deepest instincts.
Human body secretions, gathered to make perfume. (MarutStudio/ Adobe Stock)
6. Animal Fat - the Key Tool for Ancient Perfumes
Animal fat, known also as lard, has countless uses. It is used in cuisine, as raw food, as a lubricant, and many other things. But did you know it was once an invaluable asset in perfume making? It was a secret tool of many perfumists, and helped them capture the rarest scents around them. By creating a thin layer of animal fat, and laying onto its rare fragrant flowers, perfume makers could capture these rare scents as the flowers dissolved into the fat. Then, by adding alcohol in a chemical procedure, the only thing that would remain to be used were these exquisite fragrances. For ages, this was the standard procedure for creating new and exciting perfumes, and was called enfleurage. It might be useful, but it is a bit revolting - knowing that such a wonderful scent was acquired by use of animal fat.
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7. Can Rotten Cabbage Scent from Mercaptans be used as a Fragrance?
Mercaptans are a group of chemicals that are simply atrociously foul-smelling. They have a highly sulfurous odor, and it has been described as rotting cabbages - only worse. They are also found in human flatus (gas). Yet even so, it is a valuable perfume ingredient and has been for a long time. This is because the several types of Mercaptans have subtle differences in scent, and some of their elements can be valuable in rich and exotic perfumes. Through chemical procedures, the repulsive sulfurous smell is reduced, while the unique accent notes remain. These can contain scents of coffee, leather, or roses! Talk about a truly weird perfume ingredient!
A valuable revolting ingredient in perfume was found in human flatus (gas). (Public domain)
8. One of the Oldest Ancient Perfume Ingredients - Deer Musk
One of the iconic ancient perfume ingredients is deer musk. It is obtained from special musk glands that exist on Moschus, or Musk Deer, commonly found in East Asia. These are special glands that produce a substance with an incredibly persistent odor, which is so strong that it can be repulsive to many. It however, possesses those earthy, animalistic, musky scents that are important in perfumes, and can also be used as a fixative, giving the perfume its longevity. It has been a valuable ingredient in ancient times, and was present on all the trade routes of Asia. From there, it spread to Constantinople, then the center of the modern world, where it was widely used in the creation of the finest perfumes. Sadly, to obtain the musk, people kill the deer. This is a cruel practice that has caused most of the Musk Deer species to become endangered and rare to see.
9. Labdanum - Straight from the Thighs of Goats
It wasn’t always easy acquiring those rare fragrant flowers to use in perfume-making. Sometimes, you need some special help. Labdanum is a sticky gray-brown resin that can be gathered from Cistus shrubs, but it can be a difficult job. The resin has a rich and complex fragrance with elements of amber, sweetness, fruitiness, leather, musk, and ambergris. As such, it has been used in perfumes since very ancient times. But to acquire it, ancient peoples used to comb the beards and thighs of goats and sheep that grazed on these Cistus shrubs. The resin would gather there, and special combs were used to retrieve it. Because of this, the main “producers” of Labdanum were ancient shepherds, who’d sell it to coastal merchants. Another benefit of this ingredient is its resemblance to ambergris, secreted by whales. Since ambergris has been banned in many countries, Labdanum became the next best thing!
Skatole from bird and mammal feces has been a main ingredient in perfume making. (kleberpicui/Adobe Stock)
10. Skatole Comes from Feces!
Don’t be surprised to know that the stinkiest compounds in nature are a key component of the most attractive and lovely perfumes! Skatole is an ideal example. This organic compound is a key part of bird and mammal feces and is the thing that gives them that stinky, repulsive odor. Then how is it a part of perfumes? When the compound is diluted and in low concentrations, it acquires a flowery smell that can be found in several flowers and in essential oils. Because of this it is readily used as a fragrance and a fixative in many perfumes. It is an odd path - from a repulsive fecal scent, to an attractive and flowery perfume!
Lovely Scents from Foul Things!
The next time you splash a bit of that fancy perfume, think about the things it might contain. Even though that wonderful fragrance will tickle your senses and make you feel lovely, you could be spraying poop on yourself - or something else truly disgusting. Jokes aside, modern perfumes are much more sophisticated than the ancient ones, and use increasingly less repulsive ingredients.
In ancient times, however, when the knowledge of chemistry was limited at best, people had to rely on anything that was available - including ingredients that are nothing short of revolting!
Top image: Revolting ingredients for the manufacturing of luxurious ancient perfume. Source: creative_content/Adobe Stock
Branham, E. 2012. The Scent of Love: Ancient Perfumes. Getty. Available at: https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/the-scent-of-love-ancient-perfumes/
Frater, J. 2016. Top 10 Bizarre Ingredients In Perfume. Listverse. Available at: https://listverse.com/2016/04/18/top-10-bizarre-ingredients-in-perfume/
Unknown. 2019. 14 Strangest Perfume Ingredients of All Time. FragranceX. Available at: https://www.fragrancex.com/blog/strangest-perfume-ingredients/