By now, you've probably contemplated — however briefly — taking the entire internet's advice and making the switch to natural or aluminum-free deodorant. After all, there is some scary info out there about traditional drugstore antiperspirants, which contains ingredients like aluminum chloride and parabens (though studies have yet to prove any sort of causal link between the levels found in deodorant and cancer or Alzheimer's). But making the switch is intimidating. And often those who dip their toes (armpits?) into the waters of aluminum-free deodorants after years of using traditional antiperspirant find themselves disappointed with these natural alternatives, writing them off after just a couple of uses. The good news is that switching over to natural deodorant doesn't have to be a horror show. Just arm yourself (heh) with the facts.
Step one in the big natural deodorant switch: understanding how deodorant works. See, despite what you might think, "deodorant" and "antiperspirant" aren't synonyms. Most of the sticks you see on your local drugstore's shelves list both on their packaging, since antiperspirants (things that keep your from sweating) go a long way toward getting rid of body odor. See, the smell we all know as B.O. isn't actually the product of sweat itself, but rather the product of bacteria that naturally lives on the skin. The two hook up, and as bacteria begins chowing down on the proteins that your sweat carries, The Stank steadily develops — that's why you smell worse when you get home from the gym than you do mid-spin.
Traditional antiperspirants simply cut out the middle-man, using aluminum salts to plug up sweat glands and prevent perspiration from being excreted. No sweat = nothing for the bacteria to produce stink with. It's a good system. Unfortunately, aluminum is pretty much the only ingredient on the planet known to pull off that trick, and since aluminum has been suspected in some quarters to be a contributor to breast cancer, you're not going to find a "natural" option that offers that kind of dryness protection. Sorry.
Natural deodorants fight back against gross, sweaty smells in a different way: by targeting the odor-producing bacteria by making your skin a less happy place for them. "Natural deodorant is effective because it creates a clean environment where bacteria cannot survive and spread, resulting in a decrease in bad odor," explains Tara Pelletier, the co-founder of vegan skin-care brand Meow Meow Tweet and proponent of natural deodorants. "Baking soda and magnesium, both included in our natural deodorants, make the skin too salty for the bacteria to feed on the proteins and fats that are brought by sweat. In essence, you are eliminating bacteria, and in turn, preventing any harsh odors in the process."
Of course, creating an inhospitable environment for bacteria on your body does pose a couple of potential issues when it comes to finding the right natural deodorant formula for you. The first is balancing exactly the right amount of bacteria-bashing for your skin. Baking soda, one of the most common natural deodorant ingredients, has a high pH, making it alkaline. Since skin is naturally slightly acidic, (and since the bacteria that live on skin have grown accustomed to the slightly acidic lifestyle) adjusting the pH of your pits keeps bacteria at bay. On a similar theme but at the opposite end of the spectrum, some formulas opt for upping the acidity level beyond bacteria's comfortable range with ingredients like citric acid or witch hazel. Either version can be effective, but for some people, particularly those with sensitive skin, all of the pH fiddling can be too intense, leaving them with underarms that are dry, itchy or irritated.
That's why many of the OG natural deodorant brands have begun offering baking-soda-free versions of their formulas in recent years. "Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is effective at neutralizing odor-causing bacteria, but it's not the only natural ingredient that's capable of doing so," says Jaime Schmidt, founder and chief product officer of Schmidt's Naturals. "There are other natural minerals — the magnesium in our Sensitive Skin formula for instance — that do a fantastic job as well." Other brands mix in other smell-fighting ingredients like astringent tea tree oil, absorbent clay or detoxifying charcoal (like Fashionista editor fave Boscia Charcoal Deodorant) to help decrease or eliminate the amount of pH-changers needed.
When it comes to choosing between versions with baking soda and baking soda-free formulas, keep in mind that, skin-wise, your armpits have more in common with your face than with your arm. Underarm skin is very thin, which makes it more delicate and prone to reactions than the hardier skin on the rest of your body, so if you have a redness-prone complexion on your cheeks, it's fair to assume that the same will hold true for your underarms. That means you'd likely be a good candidate for a baking-soda-free formula and should ease into using it.
If you're less sensitive, formulas with more potent pH-altering ingredients may work better for you, but be sure to keep an eye out for signs of redness and switch to a more delicate formula if necessary. Or give both a go and see which type your body chemistry gets friendly with. "I say try both options and go with whichever suits you best," advises Schmidt.
Formula-wise, there are some differences between paste versions that come in pots and stick versions. Broadly speaking, sticks have a higher concentration of oils (coconut oil is especially common) to help them apply smoothly, like a traditional deodorant, while pastes tend to be thicker and have to be applied with your fingers. The trade-off is that pastes frequently have a higher percentage of the active ingredient than their stick counterparts, so when it comes to packing in the body odor fighting power, pastes usually come out ahead. Still, lots of people find the process of applying deodorant with their fingers unpleasant, which is enough to kill your experiment in natural deodorant before it even gets off the ground. So if you're mess-averse, look into stick versions that you'll actually keep using.
When it comes to freshness longevity, one of the top complaints about natural deodorant is that it doesn't last through the day like traditional versions. Both experts recommend taking a page out of your facial routine to maximize your natural deodorant. "Exfoliating ensures that the deodorant is soaking in and there isn't buildup of dry skin cells and old product," says Pelletier. "If you think about treating your underarm like you do your face, you'd be amazed at how effective a natural deodorant can be," says Pelletier. Try gentle physical exfoliants like Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant nightly to get rid of excess product and help your natural deodorant do its best work.
As for that detoxing you've probably heard about from your more hippie-leaning friends: The theory goes that there are all kinds of toxins backed up in your system when you use aluminum-based deodorants because the the sweat glands are less active and they don't have a chance to escape. These toxins, some say, begin seeping out when you switch over to natural deodorant, so you actually get smellier for a while until your body can purge all of those nasty things. But that's not exactly how the body works. "While sweat is secreted through the skin, the skin is not truly a detoxifying organ the way that the liver and kidneys are," says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He explains that when taken by mouth, some ingredients, like charcoal, can bind to toxic substances and help them move through your body without causing as much harm as they otherwise might (that's why charcoal is used by some hospitals to treat for poisonings or overdoses) but studies haven't made it clear that applying these things to your skin allows them to work in the same way.
Sweat, as you've probably guessed, is mostly made up of water, and while there are some other substances that creep out along with that water (urea, salt, those B.O.-feeding proteins and lipids), sweat isn't one of your body's main ways of getting rid of unwanted stuff (that mostly falls to your liver and kidneys). So keeping your body from sweating likely doesn't do much to keep "toxins" from getting out. Thus, letting your sweat flow like a wild river probably isn't going to purge your system from every happy hour you overdid it or nacho plate you scarfed down. In fact, one of the most likely scenarios for the so-called detox is simply that you're sweating more than you're used to and are more conscious of the way you smell because of it.
"Like any beauty product, natural deodorants will work differently for each person," says Schmidt. "Some people report what they call a 'detox' period when they go natural; some people notice no difference in experience at all versus their conventional product." Pelletier echoes the sentiment, noting that, "You may feel like you're smellier when you switch to natural deodorant, but it might also be that your body is doing what it's supposed to do."
The best way to avoid being super self-conscious when you switch over to a natural deodorant? Wear looser fitting clothing made from natural fibers like cotton, which tend to be more breathable, and consider switching up your diet. Garlic is a commonly reported culprit of next-day stink, while a study published last year found that people who eat high-carb diets were rated to have the worst smelling sweat while those who ate lots of fruit vegetables and protein were rated as being better smelling. So maybe lay off the garlic knots until you've settled into a natural deodorant routine.
All of that said, switching over to a natural deodorant can be challenging after a lifetime of antiperspirant, and there are a lot of individual biological factors (how much you sweat, how much bacteria you develop, the pH of your skin) that affect how well it may work for you. Whether natural deodorant ends up being the right choice for you is an entirely up to you, but whether you end up a lifelong convert to natural deodorant or a permanent resident of antiperspirant island, at least you can feel confident that you gave it your best shot.
In the gallery below, we've culled the best aluminum-free deodorants out there right now, so you can pick from one of these and hopefully at least have a shot at being happy with the results.
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