When I was younger, I remember being so excited to need deodorant. I longed for the day when I could buy my very own Teen Spirit in Sweet Strawberry or Pink Crush. But when the first stench hit, smack in the middle of a spelling test in fourth grade, I was anything but upbeat. Deodorant went from being a futuristic fortune to a reluctant necessity. As a teen of the early 2000s, natural deodorant wasn't on my radar. Secret stole my heart, from the medicinal-smelling gel formulas I used for playing sports to the sweet-smelling bars for everyday protection. By my early 20s, the narrative around deodorant was finally beginning to change, and I gladly hopped on board. Now, a solid 10 years from my transition to natural deodorant, I'm finally seeing natural varieties giving mainstream hygiene a run for its money. While I've made the lifelong switch, I've come across a great big world of skeptics, and I'm here to set the record straight.
Switching to a Natural Deodorant
In terms of personal care, natural alternatives—from toothpaste and deodorant to shampoo and body lotion—seem to be everywhere. Where once it felt like you could only find Tom's or Burt's Bees tucked in a small section in CVS, the offerings have skyrocketed, both in stores and online. My choice to switch to natural deodorant was simple, but the transition didn't go as well as I planned.
I've never been overly sweaty in the armpit area. I've never needed to reapply deodorant multiple times a day. But after switching to a natural deodorant, that's exactly what I found happening. How could natural deodorant actually be making my odor and perspiration worse? If anything, I thought perhaps it wouldn't work, but not this. It felt uncomfortable and, ultimately, embarrassing in public situations.
It took a couple years for me to finally ditch the Secret and switch solely to natural deodorant, and I'm so happy I did. However, if I knew the first time around what I know now, it wouldn't have taken me so long.
What's the Difference Between Antiperspirant and Deodorant?
Before we can continue discussing making the switch to natural deodorant, we need to clear something up. "Antiperspirants and deodorants work differently in their methods of reducing body odor," says Aragona Giuseppe, MD, GP, and medical advisor at Prescription Doctor. "Put simply, an antiperspirant will contain aluminum. The function of the aluminum is to decrease perspiration by blocking sweat from exiting the body, thereby stopping adverse odor and keeping your body dry. In contrast, a deodorant works to neutralize the smell of your natural body odor by masking it."
While there is no evidence that aluminum in deodorant is bad for your health, using it long-term can create a cycle of dependency on the product, says Suzannah Raff, founder of natural deodorant brand Cleo + Coco.
Why It's Important to Sweat
According to Dr. Giuseppe, "The absence of sweat can contribute to overheating because the body cannot regulate its temperature. We have three million eccrine and apocrine sweat glands in our body, so a little extra sweat is a good thing. It's what we are designed to do."
And while you may associate sweat with smell, sweat doesn't actually smell. "The odor is caused by bacteria that grows on sweat. Although aluminum is efficient in its end goal of stopping sweat, it actually operates by plugging your sweat glands," says Dr. Giuseppe. "When switching from an antiperspirant to a deodorant, you are removing the aluminum and releasing waste which has been blocked. This is a natural process as part of our body's built-in mechanisms, but it may contribute to releasing some slightly unusual body odor in comparison to what you are used to. So when you first make the switch, it's not that your natural deodorant isn't working—but your body is—and naturally!"
The Transition Period
While this transition is very common and completely normal, it can still be very unsettling. Dr. Giuseppe suggests giving your body time to adjust.
"It usually takes around three to four weeks for the body to regulate itself post-transition; however, for some people this may be shorter. I would give yourself about a month to experience the symptoms such as excess sweating and bodily moisture," he says.
What Can You Do to Combat Side Effects?
If you need some backup during your transition, Raff suggests using a charcoal soap to wash under your arms. You can also use an underarm mask made of bentonite clay and vinegar. Both can help speed up the process.
What to Look For in a Natural Deodorant
As Raff puts it, choosing a good natural deodorant is a lot like choosing to give up processed foods. Avoid products with novel-length ingredient lists when possible. A helpful resource is EWG.org, which provides "clean" ratings for more than 120,000 food and personal care products.
"You want to look for natural, active ingredients that work to rid and neutralize underarm odor, such as kaolin clay, eucalyptus, and saccharomyces ferment," says Dr. Giuseppe. You should also look for ingredients with antibacterial properties, such as tea tree oil and coconut oil.
Ingredients like witch hazel, shea butter, and beeswax have soothing agents for razor burn and can also help shrink pores. "Other ingredients you would want are soothing, creamy ingredients like coconut oil, and vegetable powders that absorb wetness," says Raff.
What to Avoid in a Natural Deodorant
Just because a label smacks a term like "all natural" on its label doesn't mean the ingredients stand up to creating a healthy environment for your underarms. "Some will have synthetic fragrance in them, which can often be a hormone-disrupting chemical and have hidden preservatives like phthalates, which we like to avoid," says Raff. "Cleo+Coco uses only essential oils for scents. This class of natural deodorant will neutralize/eliminate odor and help support your body's natural sweating process."
Water, alcohol, and glycerine are red flags as well. "These are fillers and mean that there are less active odor-fighting ingredients in the formula. These filler ingredients also introduce bacteria into the formula and then require the use of preservatives, which are no longer natural," says Raff.
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