Banging out a set of burpees, commuting on a crowded train, or piping out a presentation — it all sounds like a recipe for potential underarm gush. And while traditional deodorants and antiperspirants are designed to tamp down body odor and moisture, the ingredients used could be harmful, and even make your pits smell worse in the long run. They can even change the pH balance to make your pits bacteria-friendly sweat saunas.
That’s why we’ve got the deets on natural deodorants and even how to make your own.
The science behind BO sounds a bit repellent: Like a petri dish from middle school, our underarms create a warm hangout for bacteria. And when we perspire, these guys basically eat our moisture. The waste generated from their snacking is what creates the odor we associate with sweat.
While deodorants and antiperspirants do different things, many pit sticks you see on shelves are actually deodorant-antiperspirant combos. Traditional deodorants use antimicrobial agents or ethanol to slay the bacteria. Antiperspirants, on the other hand, use aluminum-based salts to plug up the sweat glands so that those armpit bugs can’t chow down and create a stink.
Maybe that sounds great to you — a double whammy to bacteria. Not so fast. A 2016 study shows that these traditional products alter your skin’s ecosystem, and maybe not for the better. You could be unwittingly intensifying your body odor while reducing your immune system. Study participants who didn’t use pit products had Corynebacterium hanging out in their underarms. This bacterium produces BO, but it also gives us a boost against infections.
Corynebacterium is common bacteria that sets up house in the armpit, along with Staphylococcus, Propionibacterium, and Micrococcus. Your skin is supposed to have a normal level of bacteria. Like your gut, some of these are good bacteria. But using antiperspirants can lead to a growth or introduction of new and different bacteria — ones that are even smellier than before.
Does antiperspirant cause cancer?
According to the National Cancer Institute, no studies to date have produced evidence linking the use of aluminum-containing antiperspirants with an increased risk of breast cancer. It’s a balancing act between socially-acceptable levels of body odor and keeping the amount of product down. Some chemicals are part of your everyday life. But it also makes sense to keep your exposure to any chemical to a minimum. Just because products are manufactured and marketed doesn’t mean we know all the possible long-term risks. If more natural ways keep your body odor down, then use those. For those of you who have the perfect skin flora for BO and these products don’t work, then choose a deodorant/antiperspirant for days you definitely need it, and use more natural products or no products otherwise. Your dog will like you more, too.Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHTAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
If you’ve gone ahead and tossed your traditional stick in favor of building a better pit microbiome, you might be wondering what deems a product natural. Besides avoiding synthetic and artificial ingredients, these deodorants commonly have these three components:
- ingredients with disinfectant or antibacterial properties, such as coconut oil and tea tree oil
- essential oils like lavender, sandalwood, or bergamot to provide a pleasant scent
- naturally absorbent ingredients like baking soda, arrowroot, or cornstarch to combat moisture
Natural deodorants won’t plug sweat glands like traditional antiperspirants, but they don’t contain the often-worrying ingredient aluminum.
Natural deodorants cover smell, not sweat — and that’s a good thing
Don’t expect the same results as traditional deodorants when switching to a natural product. It could take a few days or weeks for your underarms to rebalance their ecosystem. You can try an armpit detox to potentially speed up the process, but keep in mind that natural deodorants won’t halt sweat. Instead, they’ll work to minimize odor when things heat up.
We don’t want to eliminate our own personal scent signature anyway. We often talk about body odor as a bad thing — but it’s not. Eyes might be the first thing that physical attraction focuses on, but our noses also play a role in who we choose to couple up with.
So, although you might not want to go on a date without showering right after hot yoga, your natural, unmasked scent is totally acceptable in everyday circumstances. And it’s likely one of your attractive qualities.
You can buy natural deodorant at most natural food stores, where other natural skin-care products are sold, or online. Some cult favorites include:
Finding the right natural deodorant for you can involve a little trial and error, much like searching for a favorite pair of jeans. That’s because not only do we all smell differently but we all smell differently, too.
A study from 2013 shows that we each have a unique set of genetic variations that lead to changes in how we perceive scents. You may not like how your natural odor pairs with a patchouli-laced stick, for example, but your sister loves the way it works with her chemistry. Play around until you find a natural deodorant that does you right.
Create your own deodorant
You can also try making your own, if the online options don’t appeal to you. Try this easy recipe:
- 1/3 cup coconut oil
- 1/4 cup baking soda
- 1/4 cup arrowroot starch
- 6 to 10 drops of essential oils, if desired
- Mix baking soda and arrowroot.
- Mash in coconut oil until blended. Add essential oils, if desired.
- Place the mixture in an empty glass jar.
- To use, just warm a small amount between your fingers until it turns into liquid. Apply to your pits.
When making your own natural deodorant, feel free to experiment with different bases, powders, and oils. Shea butter, cocoa butter, and coconut oil work well as bases, but you don’t have to have one if you prefer an all-powder formula. Just combine equal parts baking soda and arrowroot and then add your preferred oils and shake to mix. Store in an empty spice jar with a shaker top.
If you give natural deodorant a try and are still concerned about body odor, try these BO hacks. Consider looking at what you eat as well. A 2006 study on 17 men found that red meat consumption may negatively impact how we smell. Plus, think about how certain foods like garlic or onion affect your breath. When you sweat, these foods can make your whole body smell a little more potent, too.
If you’re seriously concerned about your smell, even with the magic of deo, talk to your doctor. Certain illnesses or health conditions can also amp up one’s odoriferousness.
But above all, remember that sweat and body odor are natural! Don’t let your arms prevent you from putting your hands in the air and enjoying life.
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.