Americans are odor-obsessed. There’s no other way to explain the fact that the domestic deodorant and antiperspirant market is projected to hit nearly $3.5 billion in 2019 (1). For those in search of alternatives that are less irritating or potentially toxic, there is some good news: The natural deodorant market has grown steadily in recent years to reach $42 million in late 2017, according to research firm Mintel (2). Granted, sales are a mere fraction of the overall market, but the fact that major players like Procter & Gamble and Unilever have acquired natural brands (Native and Schmidt’s, respectively) suggests that the alternatives are gaining traction as more people become concerned about what’s going into their bodies—and on to their underarms.
Like any strong face wash or laundry detergent, traditional deodorants and antiperspirants use strong chemicals to get the job done. “Depending on a person’s skin sensitivity, sometimes these harsh chemicals can cause skin irritation,” says Beverly Hills dermatologist Dr. Tess Mauricio, CEO of MBeautyClinic.com.
An even greater concern is whether one of the main ingredients in your favorite antiperspirant could down the line negatively impact your breast or brain health. If you’re one to err on the side of caution, or if your pits react negatively to the ingredients in conventional antiperspirants and deodorants, a switch to natural varieties may be in order.
How Does Natural Deodorant Work?
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the sticks and sprays that banish odor and sweat, it’s important to define the difference between a deodorant and an antiperspirant. “An antiperspirant literally stops the flow of sweat by blocking underarm pores, whereas deodorant, which kills bacteria on the skin, covers up any smells that come with sweat,” says Caitlin Hoff, health and safety investigator at ConsumerSafety.org. “Some brands will combine the two for maximum protection from sweat and odor.”
The problem with blocking the pores in your underarms, says Dr. Mauricio, “is that they are then blocked from performing their intended function—purging toxins and regulating temperature.” Natural deodorants cover smell from underarms with antimicrobial ingredients such as sage or other essential oils as well as powders like baking soda or arrowroot that absorb odor.
The first natural deodorants to market may not have been nearly as reliable as conventional brands. In fact, many provided little more than a momentary blip of scent. But over time, chemists have experimented with various natural ingredients, and Dr. Mauricio believes that natural deodorants have definitely improved as the natural beauty space has grown. Those white streaks natural deodorants used to leave on your T-shirt? That’s caused by baking soda, a common deodorizer. “But this ingredient isn’t as commonly used in natural deodorants today,” she says. A good thing, since, for some people with sensitive skin, baking soda is a known irritant.
Hoff believes a lot of the negative reviews of natural deodorants early on came from a lack of understanding of the difference between deodorants and antiperspirants. “Many people try natural alternatives and find the product lacking because the deodorant didn’t stop them from sweating or the antiperspirant didn’t cover up the odor well enough,” she says. Hoff suggests that you read labels and know exactly what your natural product claims to do.
Ingredients to Avoid in Conventional Deodorant
So, just what has a growing percentage of Americans up in arms about the antiperspirants and deodorants they trusted for years to fight both odor and wetness? In a word, aluminum. Conventional brands contain aluminum compounds for the purpose of blocking sweat ducts. “Aluminum is the most controversial ingredient when it comes to antiperspirants,” says Hoff. She cites claims that the metal contributes to the development of breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and kidney disease. However, she cautions, “there is little evidence proving a link between antiperspirant use and these diseases.” Nor has it been proven that, as was once rumored, cancer-causing substances in antiperspirants are absorbed through razor nicks from underarm shaving.
Backing up Hoff’s claims, the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that “there are no strong epidemiologic studies in medical literature that link breast cancer risk and antiperspirant use.” In fact, the ACS website cites one study published in 2002 that compared 813 women with breast cancer and 793 women without the disease (3). The researchers found no link between breast cancer risk and antiperspirant use, deodorant use, or underarm shaving.
“Researchers have found that even after shaving, the body doesn’t absorb enough aluminum to do significant damage,” says Hoff. In fact, one study that looked at how much aluminum from antiperspirants containing aluminum chlorohydrate is actually absorbed when applied to the underarms (4). The researchers found that only a tiny fraction (0.012 percent) was actually absorbed.
The potential link between aluminum found in antiperspirants and Alzheimer’s first emerged during the 1960s and ’70s. Since then, however, studies have not confirmed the connection, and according to the Alzheimer’s Association, few believe that everyday sources of aluminum pose any threat.
That said, aluminum can cause skin irritation, “which is one reason that some people prefer to use aluminum-free traditional deodorants or natural deodorants,” says Hoff.
When it comes to skin irritation, another major culprit in traditional deodorant is the catch-all term “fragrance.” The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) has confirmed that, more often than not, this term refers to not one, but multiple ingredients. Unfortunately, this blanket term found on a multitude of deodorants gives little information as to whether the ingredients are synthetic or natural, or if they could produce an allergic reaction. More often than not, it’s a cocktail of chemicals that comprises the scent.
A few known irritants found in some traditional deodorants include parabens, compounds used as preservatives that can mimic the activity of the hormone estrogen in the body’s cells; propylene glycol, an ingredient used in antifreeze that allows the deodorant to glide smoothly over the skin’s surface; and triclosan, which was originally developed as a pesticide in the 1960s and has since made its way into cosmetics, deodorants, soaps, and lotions thanks to its ability to kill germs and odor-causing bacteria. In 2017, the FDA banned the use of triclosan in soaps and antibacterial washes due to concerns over long-term health effects. However, triclosan is still allowed in deodorants.
If the thought of having suspect ingredients touching your skin is a turn-off, you should definitely consider switching to natural alternatives.
Types of Natural Deodorant
Natural deodorants come in many formulas, including sticks, creams, charcoal, sprays, and roll-ons. Here’s what you need to know about each:
Sticks. Many of the natural stick deodorants on the market use waxes like beeswax and cadelila so that they go on smoothly and leave skin moisturized. Depending on the brand, ingredients run the gamut from coconut oil, shea butter and fruit oils to peppermint, eucalyptus and kaolin clay (to absorb sweat and moisture). If you’re skin irritates easily, look for brands that make sensitive skin formulas.
Creams. Most are comprised of some combination of the following ingredients: coconut oil, shea butter, baking soda, clay, corn starch, and essential oils. They are very similar to a moisturizer with the addition of odor-zapping powders and antiseptic ingredients like coconut oil, neem oil, and essential oils. There’s far more flexibility as to what ingredients a cream can contain since it does not need to retain its shape like a stick. In addition, far more product makes contact with the skin (and stays there!) as it gets absorbed and creates an emollient layer, much like a body butter.
Charcoal. If odor’s your true nemesis, activated charcoal deodorant may become your new BFF, and it will keep you dry all day. Unlike other natural deodorants, activated charcoal is carbon-rich so it can extract oil and dirt from clogged pores. It can also absorb 1,000 times its own weight in moisture.
Sprays. One big benefit of dry sprays is that they don’t feel wet or sticky when you apply them. Plus, the natural sprays available today dry fast and don’t stain.
Roll-ons. These deodorants glide over skin, which is great if your pits are on the sensitive side. Another bonus: The Internet is filled with recipes for DIY natural roll-ons, which include ingredients such as baking soda, corn starch, essential oils and distilled water. So if you’re looking to save a pretty penny while still smelling fresh, this could be a good option.
Before you rush off to purchase (or produce) your own natural deodorant, Hoff offers a caveat: “As a consumer, you should scrutinize a natural deodorant just as much as a traditional one for the ingredients used rather than blindly following labels. Just because a product claims that it’s “natural” or “organic” doesn’t mean it is. Read up the ingredients and confirm that they are safe for you and your family.”
How to Transition from Conventional to Natural Deodorant
When switching over to a natural deodorant, it’s wise to allow for a transition period. “The period of transition from a traditional antiperspirant to a natural deodorant can be a smelly experience,” says Dr. Mauricio. “Thankfully, its short lived! Your underarm pores will unclog and detox themselves for three-ish weeks, releasing all the toxins you’ve trapped there since you started wearing antiperspirants.” However, she adds, as soon as your body adjusts, “you’ll experience minimal sweat and minimal smell (yes, even less than the days when you forgot to apply your antiperspirant).”
Patience is key here; you are going to sweat and smell more than usual for about two weeks. Still, it helps to remember that you are only resetting your bodies natural functions, so you’re really just getting things back to working the way that they’re meant to function.
If time is of the essence, you can jump start the transition process by exfoliating your armpits and using a clay mask. Exfoliation helps by opening your underarm pores so they can more quickly clear and the clay mask starts the detox/deodorization process by helping to remove some of the harmful toxins clogged in your underarm sweat glands.
If you can possibly help it, don’t default back to your antiperspirant just because things get uncomfortable. Like everything else in life, good things—and far better results—come to those who wait.