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What Is Labdanum?

By G. D. Palmer
Updated May 21, 2024
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Labdanum is a resinous perfume ingredient derived from two Mediterranean species of rockrose: Cistus creticus and Cistus ladinifer. It does best in amber-type scents, and has a woody or animal-like smell. This material's complex fragrance resembles that of ambergris, and works in many of the same perfume recipes, including scents designed for both sexes. Labdanum was historically collected from the coats of grazing animals that had eaten the rockrose. It has been prized as an incense, perfume, and ingredient in herbal medicine for centuries, and its use is documented in ancient Greece, Egypt, and Israel.

Manufacturers produce labdanum by boiling rockrose leaves and twigs, extracting a raw, sticky black to dark brown gum that's about 20% water. This natural oleoresin is similar in composition to frankincense or turpentine, but contains less volatile oil and more wax. Solvent extraction produces a dark greenish-amber absolute, or concentrated liquid, while steam distillation produces labdanum essential oil. These materials are stronger smelling than the raw resin, and more easily used in perfume recipes.

This material plays an important part in perfumes that reproduce the smell of amber oil or artificial musk due to its smoky and earthy notes. Labdanum may be listed as a sweet, woody, or musky ingredient in perfumes and perfume oils. It is often used to replace ambergris in older perfume formulations, since that ingredient is banned in many countries due to its association with whaling. Labdanum appears in men's, women's, and unisex scents since its musky smell is not considered to be particularly masculine or feminine.

While modern labdanum extraction processes use the whole plant, grazing animals like sheep or goats were used to collect it in the past. These animals grazed on the shrubs that produce the resin, and got it caught in their coats. Shepherds and goatherds combed the animals to remove the material. Later, they combed and raked the plants for their resin, selling the material to traders for processing.

People have used this material as a scent and medicinal ingredient since the ancient period. This perfume ingredient was often mixed with natural myrrh in incense preparations mentioned in the Bible, and was also used by Hippocrates and by Roman physicians to treat coughs, colds, and sores. Ancient doctors also used labdanum to treat some kinds of infections. Components of this resin, called labdane diterpenes, have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties in laboratory tests.

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