Turning poop into perfume

There’s a secret scent in your favourite fragrance that started life as a smelly lump of whale ambergris

Image credit: Gabriel Barathieu/Wiki Comms

When walking along the beach, if you’re really lucky you might be able to find a waxy white substance that is nearly as valuable as gold. It’s called ambergris, and we have used it throughout human history as a perfume scent, in traditional medicines and even as a spice. But the origin of ambergris was shrouded in mystery for thousands of years until researches realised it is actually a clump of sperm whale faeces.

Sperm whales have an insatiable appetite. They can gobble down up to a ton of food every day, and included in their behemoth banquet are squids. Although most of a squid’s body is soft and fleshy, they have thorny beaks that sperm whales are not able to digest. They are usually vomited back into the ocean every few days to protect the whale from trying to pass the sharp edges through their intestines. However, an estimated one in 100 sperm whales are not so lucky. For these whales, some of the beaks get stuck. As faeces, intestinal worms and squid eyeballs accumulate the debris becomes a sticky brown blockage. The whale’s sphincter is not designed to pass solid faeces and it gets stuck. Whales can survive several years, or even decades with the blockage, but eventually the creature can die – either from other causes or, if the ambergris becomes too large, due to the rupturing of the intestinal walls.

As the carcass is eaten by other marine animals the mass is released into the ocean. It will float for years on the surface of the water, and sunlight, salt water and bacteria will cause chemical changes within the ambergris that clean and dry it. This process causes the ambergris to form a pale grey or yellow colour and possess the light, distinctive scent of ambergris.

Ambergris in perfume

Despite its rather disgusting origins, ambergris is still used in perfume today. It is valued because of its unique smell and its suitability as a fixative, which make scents linger longer and intensify the aroma of the perfume. The distinctive aroma is described as a sweet marine musk, which is caused by the active ingredient triterpene alcohol ambrein. Obtaining the ambergris is not easy, and perfume manufacturers have to rely on buying pieces that are found on beaches or inside fishing nets. In fact, it’s so rare that one gram of the stuff is estimated to cost around $20 (approximately £15) per gram, perhaps more.

Although many synthetic versions of this chemical are used in modern perfumes, high-end manufacturers (including famous names such as Chanel and Givenchy) continue to use ambergris because of its classic and historical qualities.

Older pieces of ambergris are lighter in colour due to the process of oxidation that occurs in the ocean. Image credit: Peter Kaminski/wiki comms

 This article was originally published in How It Works issue 122, written by Charlie Evans 

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