Plastic-Free Armpits: DIY & "All Natural" Deodorants That Work
Have you found a zero waste deodorant that works for you or have they been a but iffy and left you a bit whiffy? We look at which “all natural” deodorants actually work and share recipes, recommendations, and how to detox your pits!
Deodorant paste is a great switch to make to avoid the plastic used to contain sprays and roll-ons, which is hard to recycle, but it can be a struggle to find the right fit for your pit, with “all natural” alternatives not working for everyone.
So, we set out to find which ingredients in “all natural” deodorants actually work and how they work, and to uncover all the zero waste deodorant options out there so you can find the right solution for you. And, while doing our research we discovered that armpit detoxing is a thing and that this is why deodorant paste might not work straight away, so we share how to do that too.
[Side note: I put “all natural” in quotation marks because I don’t like to use this term as everything is made from natural components and chemicals at the end of the day and it perpetuates the view that natural is inherently better and always safe and chemicals and synthetics are bad and poisonous, when both can be just as toxic at certain doses. But I don’t know what else to call it.]
Different people; different body chemistry
I’m going to give you the answer to this one straight up. Do “all natural” deodorants work? The answer is for some people they do and for some people they don’t. It depends on who is using it as our bodies are different and what works for some people might not work for others as skin bacterial composition varies strongly among individuals.
Some people produce a lot of sweat; others don’t. The bacteria living in our pits is not the same for everyone. And, some people get an allergic reaction from bi-carb, so any deodorant containing it is not going to work for them.
And things like diet, regularity of showering, and fabrics worn also have an effect on the production of perspiration and its smell.
Like with shampoo bars, it will take some experimenting to find the right plastic-free deodorant brand or homemade recipe for you. And, there is also a detox period where your underarms need to get used to you not applying the spray or roll-on you’ve been applying for years.
They will never work as well as an antiperspirant as an antiperspirant is not the same thing as a deodorant. An antiperspirant actually stops the body’s natural process of sweating using ingredients like propylene glycol and aluminum salts, while deodorants generally only mask the smell, which is caused by the bacteria on our skin breaking down. These bacteria multiply in the presence of sweat, which is why stopping sweating minimises smelly armpits.
How to do an armpit detox
It may seem as if deodorant paste doesn’t work for you, but it could just be that your armpits need to get used to not having the deodorant or antiperspirant you have been using sprayed or rolled onto them.
If you have been using antiperspirant, which prevents your body from sweating, when you stop using it, you’ll sweat a lot and thus smell more, but this should be temporary.
How to do an armpit detox?
Be prepared for a few days or a week of not smelling your best
Stop using your usual deodorant and start using a deodorant paste
Wait it out!
It can take a few weeks and up to a month for your body "to regulate itself again and learn to sweat naturally", according to Griffin-Black, co-founder of EO Products, who states that your “underarms will smell especially icky for the first two weeks because that's when your sweat glands are purging all the built-up toxins, bacteria, and chemicals that have been blocked for so long”.
According to an article in Byrdie, ways to survive this detox include:
wearing loose breathable clothing,
drinking lots of water and eat a healthy diet, avoiding foods with a strong smell that will come out of your pores, and
encouraging your body to sweat by having hot baths and working out.
We couldn’t find any clinical studies proving that armpits needs to acclimatise to “all natural” deodorant, but this study on the effect of habitual and experimental antiperspirant and deodorant product use on armpit microbiome’s findings suggest that the long-term use of antiperspirants or deodorants has a strong effect on the bacterial composition of armpits.
It found that “individuals who used antiperspirants or deodorants long-term, but who stopped using product for two or more days as part of this study, had armpit communities dominated by Staphylococcaceae, whereas those … who habitually used no products were dominated by Corynebacterium”.
Healthline notes that an “imbalance in bacteria can be one reason why transitioning from an antiperspirant to a natural deodorant can make you feel extra smelly and says “it takes time for the bacteria on your skin to balance out”, so it makes sense to us that an armpit detox might be necessary to give your body time to adjust.
While time will help, an armpit detox mask probably won’t. It is claimed that masks made from bentonite clay and apple cider vinegar will pull the toxins out if the skin, but “applying clay or vinegar to the skin won’t draw toxins out of the body or clear out lymph nodes”, according to Healthline. And vinegar could cause some irritation, so best to just skip the armpit mask and just wait it out while your body adjusts.
The ingredients not in “all natural” deodorant
Deodorant paste generally doesn’t contain aluminum chlorohydrate, aluminum zirconium, phthalates, and parabens, which deodorant sprays and roll-ons and antiperspirants can contain.
While we avoid these products because of the waste that comes with them, we don’t avoid them because they cause cancer. The claim that the aluminum in these products causes cancer is not proven. There is no research showing that toxins in deodorants or antiperspirants result in breast cancer.
This study on the effect of habitual and experimental antiperspirant and deodorant product use on the armpit microbiome notes that “although it has been suggested that deodorant and/or antiperspirant use is associated with incidence or age of breast cancer diagnosis, support for this association is equivocal at best”.
It concludes: “Antiperspirant use strikingly alters armpit bacterial communities, making them more species rich. Because antiperspirants only came into use within the last century, we presume that the species of bacteria they favor are not those historically common in the human armpit. Whether these species may interfere with the function of beneficial skin symbionts, contribute antibiotic resistance genes, prove benign, or perhaps even confer beneficial effects to human health remains an intriguing avenue for further study.”
Similarly, The American Cancer Society states that "there are no strong epidemiologic studies in the medical literature that link breast cancer risk and antiperspirant use, and very little scientific evidence to support this claim”.
However, it might be worth avoiding ones that contain parabens and phthalates.
Many major brands of deodorants do not currently contain parabens, which is used as a preservative, although some may. While the FDA states that it “does not have information showing that parabens as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health”, there is “growing literature that suggests that exposure to certain endocrine disrupting chemicals may impact timing of puberty in children” (source),
In addition, several studies have found that “phthalates might have some effects on hormones” (source). Fragrances can often contain phthalates as they are used to make smells last longer.
So, parabens and phthalates might be an issue but “the level of chemical exposure that might pose a risk to human health and whether even the highest exposures measured in people are a problem” (source) is unclear. If you like to er on the side of caution, then avoid deodorants and other beauty products containing these.
The ingredients in deodorant pastes and how/if they work
1. Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda or bi-carb)
Firstly, this can cause a reaction for some people. If your armpits become red and itchy and they start burning or a rash develops after using a deodorant containing baking soda, stop using the product. Although redness and itchiness may be from an increase in bacteria as your body adjusts, according to Healthline, it is more likely that you are having a reaction to it.
Sodium bicarbonate’s material safety data sheet (MSDS) warns that it might cause slight skin irritation, especially if the skin is moist, and that with repeated or prolonged exposure to the skin, it may cause drying and cracking of the skin.
The problem could be the amount of b-carb you are using, so if you want to make your own deodorant with baking soda, try using less. This is often the problem with homemade beauty products, the formulation is not tested and exact like commercially made ones and this can be detrimental to our health. Sodium bicarbonate is used in cosmetic products at concentrations ranging up to 50% (source), so you would definitely want it to be less than 50% of your mixture.
The amount used - of all ingredients - is important and these recipes should be closely scrutinised and compared to commercial ones to make sure too much of an ingredient like sodium bicarb is not used. Too much of an “all natural” ingredient can be as toxic as any other ingredient.
The pH of a cosmetic product is also important and sodium bicarbonate is buffered to near neutrality when used in commercial products (source).
Bi-carb is a well-known deodoriser. It neutralises bad odours caused by acids (source), which is most unpleasant smells, including sweat. Smelly armpits are caused by bacteria converting sweat into acidic waste products and baking soda is believed to reduce odour by neutralising these acidic waste products.
In addition, it inhibits the production of this underarm bacteria, thus reducing the amount of acidic waste products produced. This study underlines the importance of bacteria in odour formation.
The results of this study on sodium bicarbonate as a deodorant (from 1946!) were: “clinical studies on more than 90 persons have indicated that bicarbonate of soda is a valuable underarm deodorant for common daily usage”. In the study, “no furunculosis has developed in over 90 cases which have used bicarbonate of soda over periods of from four weeks to a year's duration”.
And this study’s list of recommended deodorants includes baking soda.
Personally, I have made and used a deodorant paste with baking soda using the basic recipe shared below and have not had any reaction and it has worked well for me.
2. Shea butter, cocoa butter, and/or coconut oil
All of these are moisturising ingredients and they make the deodorant a paste that can be smoothed onto the skin. In addition, the fatty acids in coconut oil have antibacterial properties and help block the growth of bacteria (source), so it will help reduce the amount of bacteria and thus the smell.
3. Arrowroot powder, tapioca flour, or corn starch
Arrowroot, tapioca flour, and cornstarch absorb moisture and are used as a thickener.
Cornstarch can also cause a reaction for some people due to its high pH. If your armpits become red and itchy and they start burning or a rash develops after using a deodorant containing corn starch, stop using the product. Although redness and itchiness may be from an increase in bacteria as your body adjusts, according to Healthline, it is more likely that you are allergic to it.
Rather use arrowroot, which has a lower pH than cornstarch. It had a neutral pH.
It is claim by some that arrowroot helps draw out toxins. In fact, its common name of arrowroot comes from Native Americans’ belief that it could absorb poison out of arrow wounds; however, we could not find any scientific studies on this.
4. Kaolin or Bentonite Clay
Clays also absorb moisture and potentially have antibacterial properties. When it is applied to the skin, kaolin acts as a drying agent and bentonite clay is also an absorbent.
According to this study, “the high adsorption and absorption capacities … of certain clays, e.g. … kaolin group minerals are important reasons why these minerals are used to remove oils, secretions, toxins, and contaminants from the skin”. However, the study concludes that “although the use of clays in human health has been promoted empirically and traditionally, perhaps since the beginning of mankind, our knowledge of natural mineral impacts on human pathogens is in its infancy”.
Rather use kaolin than bentonite as kaolin has a lower pH while bentonite has a high pH.
5. Diatomaceous earth
A powder made from fossilised phytoplankton, diatomaceous earth is rich in silica and has antimicrobial properties, which is why works well in natural deodorants according to this study. The study notes that “its pH can vary depending on where it is sourced from, but it is typically lower than baking soda”.
It can be used to make a deodorant free from bi-carb.
6. Live bacteria
Probiotic deodorants are relatively new. These underarm salves incorporate a healthy mix of bacteria to combat body odour. According to Popular Science, “it’s plausible that a probiotic deodorant could help treat body odour, by encouraging good bacteria to grow”, but “we’re still in the early days of understanding the underarm microbiome and its effect on your body odour”.
7. Beeswax or carnauba wax
An advisable addition for those living in warmer climates as this hardens the mixture and makes it more stable. Without it, your deodorant paste will melt and become a liquid when it is hot. I had this problem with the last batch of deodorant I DIYed and next time I’ll be adding wax.
If your paste does liquify, however, you can just mix it up and put it in the fridge to solidify again or just store it in the fridge (make sure it is labelled clearly!).
It also helps lock the moisturising properties of the butters and oils into the skin so they can do their jobs, according to this source.
8. Essential Oils
Essential oils are optional and are mainly used to add fragrance. Certain ones also have some degree of antibacterial properties that could help with odour.
However, you need to be careful when using essential oils. They should not be used by children and people who are pregnant or have sensitive skin and pure essential oils should never be used undiluted on skin.
In addition, they are generally not environmentally friendly to produce and some (tea tree oil and lavender oil) have been found to be endocrine disruptors and certain ones are toxic to dogs and cats, so we don’t recommend using these carelessly.
Our top recommended deodorant pastes
Some commercially made natural deodorants pastes and rolls that we recommend are:
Forever Fresh plastic-free deodorant (US/CAN)
Fat and the Moon Sensitive Pit Cream (US/CAN)
I firstly want to point out that we have not personally tested these recipes apart from the basic one and recommend reading the above paragraphs on homemade deodorant and the ingredients used before making your own using one of these recipes. In particular, we suggest looking at the amount of ingredients like baking soda used in relation to the rest of the ingredients and potentially reducing the amount used.
They may or may not work for you. If your armpits become red and itchy and they start burning or a rash develops after using one deodorant made using one of these DIY recipes, stop using the product immediately.
We recommend using a recipe that contains a wax if you live somewhere with high temperatures so that it does not melt and separate. Or keep it in the fridge to prevent it from liquifying.
Basic DIY deodorant recipe (The Green Mum’s recipe)
3 tbsp coconut oil
1 tbsp baking soda
2 tbsp arrowroot powder or corn starch, and
a few drops of an essential oil of your choice (optional)
1. Mix baking soda and arrowroot together.
2. Mash in coconut oil with a fork until well mixed.
3. Add oils if desired.
4. Store in small glass jar for easy use.
Added shea butter
You can add shea butter to the above recipe by melting it with the coconut oil using a double boiler before adding the baking soda and arrowroot. The following amounts are recommended by this source:
3 T Coconut Oil
3 T Baking Soda
2 T Shea Butter
2 T Arrowroot or organic cornstarch
Added wax (Ain’t No Planet B’s recipe)
You can add Ain’t No Planet B’s multi-purpose balm to create a cream that doesn’t change consistency using:
1 part baking soda
1 part cornstarch
~1 part multi-purpose balm
Essential oils of your choosing
1. Combine 1:1 baking soda and cornstarch
2. Add essential oils
3. Slowly add multi-purpose balm until the consistency is like putty, only adding as much as you need to get the texture right.
Homemade deo for sensitive skin from Mummypotamus - bi-carb free option:
Mummypotamus uses baking soda in her recipe, but according to this source, diatomaceous earth can be used instead of baking soda to make this recipe bi-carb free.
3/4 cup arrowroot powder/non-GMO cornstarch
1/4 cup baking soda or diatomaceous earth
4-6 tablespoons melted coconut oil
1. Combine baking soda and arrowroot powder/cornstarch
2. Add four tablespoons melted coconut oil and mix. Continue adding coconut oil until the preferred consistency is reached.
3. Place mixture in a jar with a tight fitting lid.
Other zero waste deodorant alternatives
1. Using nothing
Did you know that some people don’t need to wear deodorant? According to the NHS, a particular DNA sequence variation in the ABCC11 gene is associated with both earwax and armpit sweat odour. Dry earwax has been linked to less odorous sweat, while wet earwax has been linked to more odorous sweat. Researchers suggest these people with the non-odorous variant could choose not to use deodorant.
Maybe you’re one of the lucky few!
2. Using lemon juice or vinegar
Some online bloggers suggest using pure lemon or lime juice or vinegar as a deodorant and just rubbing it directly on your skin; however, using straight lemon or lime juice or vinegar on your skin is not recommended as it can cause skin irritation, sun sensitivity, and hyperpigmentation according to the International Journal of Cosmetic Science.
2. Using crystal deodorant
The sole ingredient of natural crystal deodorants is potassium alum. It is applied topically by applying a wet stone or a dry stone to wet skin. As potassium is soluble in water, an invisible, fine layer of the mineral is rubbed off the stone and applied to the skins surface, Natural Cosmetic News explains.
It says it works because potassium alum is a natural anti-microbial that inhibits the growth of odour-causing bacteria by adjusting the pH of the skins surface and creating an environment where it cannot grow.
However, Healthline says that “scientific studies proving the advantages of crystal deodorant are lacking and many of the benefits are anecdotal”, adding that “some people swear by it while others swear it doesn’t work” and “it all boils down to a matter of preference, since each person’s body chemistry is different”.
I hope this helps you choose the right zero waste deodorant solution for your pits! Let us know what you have tried and what has worked - or not! - for you in the comments.
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