Natural deodorants have long been a point of contention between those who want to avoid putting potentially harmful ingredients into (or onto) their bodies, and those who don’t want to be exposed to other peoples’ noxious body odor. The question remains: Is it possible to find a natural deodorant that actually works? And what makes a deodorant “natural,” or unnatural, anyway? The short answer is that no natural deodorant will keep you from sweating; some will be more effective than others at keeping your sweat from smelling.
What’s the Deal with Aluminum?
Most people looking for a natural deodorant want to avoid the aluminum used in antiperspirants. Aluminum (labeled aluminum chlorohydrate, aluminum chloride, aluminum hydroxybromide, aluminum zirconium) works by forming invisible plugs in your pores that keep you from sweating. And while there’s no scientific proof that aluminum in antiperspirants causes health problems, it’s still common for people to worry that it might increase their risk of Alzheimer’s disease and/or cancer. Such claims, based on a few decades-old, now-discredited studies, have been—and continue to be—refuted by the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the FDA. But, for those who’d rather err on the side of caution, it’s easy enough to purchase a deodorant without aluminum. It’s worth noting, though, that not all natural deodorants are aluminum free.
A popular natural alternative is crystal deodorant—also known as mineral deodorant—available as a spray, stick, powder, or stone. Yes, these crystals are natural (they’re mined from the ground), but their active ingredient, an antimicrobial mineral called potassium alum, is technically another form of aluminum. Something to be aware of, if aluminum is the reason you’re going natural.
As of yet, there’s no published research to corroborate claims that these mineral salts “create an environment in which bacteria cannot survive,” but crystal deodorants are gaining popularity in large part because they’re fragrance free; a boon for those with sensitive skin. And potassium alum works differently from antiperspirant ingredients that plug the pores: it coats the skin and inhibits the growth of the bacteria that cause body odor.
Which brings up another important fact: sweat, by itself, doesn’t smell. Body odor is released when bacteria (specifically staphylococcus hominis) digests your sweat. While natural deodorants don’t keep your armpits dry, but they attempt to combat and mask body odor—often with antimicrobial essential oils. Unfortunately, those oils can cause a different set of problems.
Try Out Natural if You Have Sensitive Skin
Aluminum aside, many people want a natural deodorant because their skin is sensitive—they’re looking to avoid irritants or allergens, or they’re prone to contact dermatitis. But natural doesn’t mean irritant-free and fragrance, whether natural or synthetic, is the primary source of skin reactions to cosmetics. Almost every deodorant contains fragrance—but natural deodorants are often more fragrant, because they rely heavily on essential oils for their antibacterial properties. Since natural deodorants don’t inhibit the sweat that bacteria feeds on, they need to inhibit the bacteria that feeds on sweat. Otherwise, nothing’s preventing body odor. But in this case, the same ingredients that reduce the smell-inducing bacteria are proven to be skin sensitizers.
While natural—and even organic—essential oils like bergamot, eucalyptus, lavender, lemongrass, oregano, peppermint, rosemary, tea tree, cinnamon, clove (and so on) may smell lovely and fend off the bacteria that cause body odor, they’re also guaranteed to cause skin reactions in a certain number of people. A recent survey in the United Kingdom found that one in five women and one in ten men will have a skin reaction to a personal-care product in the course of any given year—and that deodorants and antiperspirants are at the top of the list of products causing those reactions. It’s safe to assume the numbers are similar in the U.S., and it’s obvious that the best solution is to use fragrance-free products, particularly since the FDA’s guidelines for cosmetics allow for a general “fragrance” label. There’s often no way to know for certain which fragrance (or combination of fragrances) is included. More complicated than that, it’s difficult to find a fragrance-free natural deodorant, since the fragrance is what’s doing the deodorizing (or attempting to). The best alternative is a crystal deodorant, though then again, you have to weigh the aluminum factor.
Current internet trends offer another argument in favor of natural deodorants: fear of toxins. Science will contradict the misguided notion that the body needs to sweat in order to purge from the lymph nodes, and that antiperspirants, because they inhibit sweat, pose harm. In reality, the liver and kidneys get rid of waste and toxins; lymph nodes will help clear out bacteria and viruses, but none of those organs is related to the sweat glands, which are located in the skin, and whose purpose is to regulate the body’s temperature. Antiperspirants don’t prohibit the release of harmful toxins through underarm lymph nodes; they inhibit the release of sweat through sweat glands. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t valid reasons to choose a natural deodorant or to avoid deodorants that also contain antiperspirants—but this line of thinking is simply faulty.
But do Natural Deodorants Work?
Well, if we’re being honest, probably not as well as a traditional deodorant with anti-perspirant. But, like any cosmetic product, different natural deodorants will work differently on different people. What remains fairly consistent—except in the case of crystal deodorants in their crystal form—are the basic ingredients.
Most natural deodorants will consist of: an oil for the base (often coconut oil, which has mild antibacterial properties); absorbent ingredients like arrowroot, cornstarch, tapioca starch, or baking soda; antibacterial essential oils, and wax or tallow (rendered animal fat) for texture. Definitely read your labels carefully if it’s important that your natural deodorant be vegan.
And one last note of caution, for those with sensitive skin: be aware of products that contain witch hazel. This “natural” ingredient is proven to irritate skin with habitual use—and daily application of a deodorant certainly qualifies.
Take a look at our Natural Deodorant Reviews for more information