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What is Indole?

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Fecal matter? Moth balls? Perfume? What is this crazy chemical substance, and why should you care?


If you’ve read anything about perfumery — particularly florals or chemical compounds — you might have come across indole. A fascinating chemical compound, indole is extremely attractive in a perfume. I know what you’re thinking — attractive? How can something that’s also produced by human bacterial flora be attractive?


Hold on, we’ll get there, we promise. It will all be worth it in the end.


What is indole, what does it smell like, and how in the name of the perfume gods is it used to make people smell fantastic? That’s what we’re going to take a look at in this article, so if that sounds interesting, keep reading. You’re in for a bit of a ride. 

What in the World Is Indole?

Indole is a naturally occurring chemical compound. It can be found in a variety of things: white flowers (jasmine, tuberose, neroli, etc.), wallflowers, chocolate, decomposing fruit, feces, and a whole host of other lovelies. It’s the musky smell produced during human sex, and has been labeled the scent of physical intimacy. 

Carnal to the point-of-no-return, indole is heady and penetrating (eh?), and even the untrained nose can pick out the crotch-like qualities, the damp smell of decay and human contact.

Where Does It Come From? (Besides, You Know, Sex)

Besides being produced naturally in a variety of places, such as the ones covered prior, indole and its derivatives can be produced synthetically. This produces clear, highly concentrated crystals that smell oddly similar to mothballs. Once diluted, they take on that familiar animal-musk. Dilute some more and you get something akin to jasmine and orange blossom. 

Synthetic indole has been added to many a perfume as a sort of musk, and also works well as a deep, heavy, over-ripe floral additive. It creates a sense of warmth and natural connection to the world. 

Some History

The fight for and against indole, whether directly or indirectly, has been raging heatedly for centuries. One of the most common grounds for which this debate was fought is that of what a woman is supposed to smell like. As these debates tend to do, it got political and slightly bigoted. 

See, women were supposed to smell pure, chaste, or so it was argued. They weren’t supposed to display any sort of obvious sexuality or humanness, instead hiding behind a sugared smokescreen perfumed by innocent flowers. Flowers like the lily, the violet, the rose. White flowers containing indole were saved for the prostitutes, those on the fringes of society. 

Some of the most prominent detractors were the ascetics. They believed in building a culture of abstinence from all sorts of indulgence. Obviously, they were against indole, as it was far too sensorily stimulating. 

On the other side of the spectrum, we have the sensualists. People like W.R.C. Latson, they believed that the senses had to be stimulated in order to produce any sort of meaningful response to the world. They didn’t limit this sensory exposure to the simple or obvious — they believed in getting down and dirty, in getting involved.

In the 1920s, with the sexual revolution in full swing and the emergence of the flappers, perfumes like Chanel No. 5 brought indole into the mainstream again. This perfume, which fundamentally changed the way women smell, rehashed the raciness and made it more acceptable. Still, the stigmas persist today, with shower-gel scents lining shelf after shelf at the department store.

The Smell Itself

Indole is a hard one to pin down — too much and you get a mothball-like aroma. It can also smell intensely fecal in high concentrations. Indole is produced by bacteria, along with other smelly (but this time not in a good way) chemicals including cadaverine, which is responsible for the aroma of urine and rotting meat, and putrescine, responsible for vaginosis and bad breath. 

I know, not the best company. Even the names sound bad. 

If you’ve ever smelled a rotting body (not that I expect you to have smelled a rotting body, but nevertheless), you may have noticed an almost sickly sweetness. That, my friend, is the indole doing its thing. 

However, before you relegate indole to the metaphorical doghouse, know that it’s a derivative of tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin. This helps explain the natural, base human reaction to the scent — it’s subconsciously associated with being happy and content. Something to be sought out. 

Indole is also created in the skin, particularly that in the crotch region, and is released due to the increase of heat and moisture during sex. 

Low concentrations produce something deeply floral and heavy, and human attraction to it seems to be an ingrained natural response. A study done by the University of Tokyo found that high concentrations of jasmine boosted mood and positive brain activity among participants, even when participants displayed no recognition of the scent. This shows that indole (when done right) is inherently attractive, and not attractive by association.

Indole in Perfumery

Indole isn’t necessarily put into perfumes on its own. Instead, it’s in many of the common smell-goods we throw in fragrances anyway. Things like jasmine, tuberose, neroli, magnolia blossoms, roses, and cocoa are just a few of the perfume notes that contain high levels of indole. 

Indole can also be isolated and synthetically produced, then diluted and added in different perfumes. This, however, brings lackluster results. Again, indole is one of the many facets to these flowers, and, while these low concentrations smell similar, it’s a crude comparison to the real thing. 

Men’s Fragrances With Indole

While rarely added to perfumes as a stand-alone ingredient, here are a few of our favorite indolic men’s scents:

  • Mugler Cologne is a men’s fragrance with a cult reputation — there have been reports of stalking due to the scent trail, and whether they’re purely anecdotal, no one is certain. Regardless, Mugler’s Cologne is a fantastic, versatile scent for men with just the subtlest hint of indole shining through.
  • Prada L’Homme is a very classy, understated scent. Peeking out from underneath, however, is another side to this scent — a heady dose of indolic neroli that helps save this scent from boring, and inspire a rather unexpected level of sex appeal.
  • Amouage Reflection is a men’s scent featuring jasmine as a middle note. Packed with other florals, the jasmine has a lot to contend with. Even still, it comes off smelling real, and the blending is excellent. If you’re looking for a pure experience for men, look no further than this one here.
  • Fleur du Mâle by Jean Paul Gaultier is the rare flowery men’s fragrance that smells sexy. Neroli gives this scent its indolic profile, and sits, mainly, over orange blossom and vanilla. It’s the perfect perfume for a melancholy overcast morning, and smells fantastic, if interesting. 
  • Montblanc Legend EDP contains both jasmine and magnolia — an indolic double whammy. Besides this sizeable dose of florals, Legend EDP has violet, leather, oakmoss, and woods. It’s a sensual scent that is surprisingly wearable, regardless of scene. 
  • Brioni Man Eau de Parfum by Brioni is a quintessential spring and autumn scent. Not quintessential in that you’ve smelled it before, but in that it just fits. With notes like violet, sicilian lemon, and licorice, Brioni Man EDP also contains magnolia: a floral note heavy with indole. This fragrance 

Women’s Fragrances With Indole

Here are a few of our favorite indolic women’s scents:

  • By Killian Good Girl Gone Bad is the definition of a clean-sexy fragrance — light enough to be worn in the daytime and during the summer, but nonetheless exuding a palpable sensualit. The indole here comes from the Indian tuberose and jasmine. It’s very light and instantly likeable.
  • L’Interdit Eau de Parfum by Givenchy is an all-timer, and worthy of being a signature scent. This is a personal favorite of mine due to it’s overall playfulness and undeniable charisma. It’s warm, inviting, and mysterious. If you wear it to work, it’s professional. If you wear it on a date, it’s not. Wherever you wear it, you’ll smell delicious, sophisticated, and a little mysterious. I can’t recommend it enough.
  • Burberry London is a women’s perfume heavy on florals that leans towards the sweeter side of things. While some have called it out as a quintessential crowd-pleaser, we think it checks all the boxes for a fantastically wearable indolic scent for women.
  • La Vie La Mort from Tokyo Milk is actually a unisex fragrance, and posesses one of the most beautiful, heavy representations of tuberose we’ve smelled. It’s surprisingly earthy, decayed, and lasts well. For the price you pay, this scent is a steal.
  • Good Fortune by Viktor&Rolf is one of the more simple fragrances you’ll smell, and it works marvelously. Fennel, gentiana, jasmine, and madagascar vanilla. That’s it. This perfume is great for people looking for an understated scent that remains alluring. It’s high quality and classic, and it simply works.
  • Dior’s Miss Dior is rich; pink pepper, blood orange, and rose dominate from the get-go. It’s charming, feminine, and the performance is magical. Miss Dior smells best on the skin and takes time to develop; give it time, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the richest, most stunning female fragrances on the planet. 
  • Woman by Ralph Lauren is a very feminine perfume, and it’s very easy to fall in love with. One of those scents that you find yourself coming back to time and time again, notes like pear, tuberose, and hazelnut shine in this composition. The scent and longevity are equally impressive and make this an easy one to recommend. 
  • Alien by Mugler is syrupy jasmine experience that remains surprisingly easy to wear. With citrus in the top and amber and cashmeran in the base, Alien is fairy-like. Wear this when you want to feel (and smell) like your walking up in the clouds with the other magical creatures.

Get Your Nose on Some Indole

So, now you know all about indole, this magical chemical responsible for humanities primal response to a number of white flowers. You’ll never quite approach those hanging white blooms the same way again, huh?

We hope you enjoyed this article, and wish you pleasant smells. Thanks for reading.

Isaac Marks

Isaac Marks

Isaac is a fragrance expert from Chicago, Illinois, specializing in smelling good at all times. When he isn't sniffing things, Isaac likes to read, write, run, bake, and play the guitar.

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Jack Harbor

Full Time Fragranista

Jack Harbor is an expert in all things scent – from wearing, to mixing, to making perfumes, his expertise is varied and robust. He loves to smell good, and loves helping other’s smell good – for the good of us all!

Jack Harbor

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