Natural and Homemade Deodorants

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In the ongoing project of “greening” my home and habits, especially in relation to all those routine products like cleaners, make-up and toothpaste, I think it’s time to talk about one of the changes I made a while ago–switching out my deodorant. As the weather shows no sign of dropping below 90 degrees anytime soon and people may try to slather on extra layers of potentially damaging antiperspirants, this seems like a better time than, say, February, when I made the change myself.

Deodorant is one of those things that I am acutely conscious of in my day-to-day life. Or rather, I’m conscious of the lack of deodorant, much as I have difficulty going to sleep without brushing my teeth, or stepping out of the house without something to cover my shoulders (this last is a style and modesty consideration I developed and internalized in Japan). Times when I forget or willfully ignore one of these things are peppered with tiny moments of distraction and irritability, especially if I have no way to easily rectify the situation.

My “obsession” is a habit I didn’t even think about until a few years ago, when a friend had a rather severe reaction to antiperspirants while at summer camp that left her unwilling (and possibly unable) to ever use such products again. But I’d never experienced anything remotely similar, so I just set that whole issue aside and continued blithely using antiperspirants until a few months ago, when I noticed some tenderness under my arms and my boyfriend suggested finding a product that was only deodorant, and not an aluminum-containing antiperspirant. He pointed out that aluminum wasn’t really something I needed to be absorbing into my skin (it’s the primary substance that stops perspiration and can irritate skin), and that sweating is kind of something skin is designed for (sweating is the principle way for the body to cool itself and ward off dangerous reactions like heatstroke; regularly interfering with that process seems unhealthy). A week later, after rifling through the stock of local grocery stores and pharmacies, I found only one single product that was a deodorant and not an antiperspirant–Tom’s of Maine. Everything else had aluminum in it, or parabens (a carcinogenic), and likely both.

I know that there are other non-antiperspirant deodorants out there, but this truly is the only one I could readily find. It’s more expensive than a lot of other mainstream brands, but it keeps me from freaking out, seems to be generally kinder to my skin, neutralizes body odor and doesn’t have to be rigorously scrubbed off every time I shower like most other brands I’ve used. It took me a little while to get used to feeling sweat under my arms (never a lot, just some), but now I actually feel more comfortable than when I was using antiperspirants, possibly because my body can regulate internal temperature more easily. In my experience, the single $5 container lasts for several months. (In fact, I have yet to need to purchase another.) So I consider it a good investment. But if you’re interested in using something aluminum-free and unwilling to pay more for a stick of deodorant, you can’t find an aluminum-free brand in your area, or what you’re using simply doesn’t work well for you, there are some other things you can try. 

A scented deodorant powder can make a cute gift! Try this recipe.Photo by Lisa Clarke/Courtesy Flickr

Keep in mind that everyone’s body is different, and some of these ideas may not work for you. Body odor can have many causes, including diet, weight and medication concerns. I’ve seen both dairy and meat mentioned as sources for diet-induced body odor, but it likely depends on your personal lifestyle and genetics. Also, with the exception of those options that contain corn starch, these solutions are not intended to stop sweating, only odor (and corn starch has only a mild effect). These are ideas I’m planning to experiment with whenever I do run out, too.

1. Baking soda: Yes, you read that right. The same stuff you can use to clean your pots and pans, or scrub ceramic, or brush your teeth with, can also be used under your arms to eliminate odor, in much the same way it works in your fridge or cabinet. Just pat the dry powder against your just-washed underarms (or pat a slightly moist paste to your dry skin) and voila. Don’t believe it? There are bloggers all over the internet who are quite willing to regale you with their experiences in this, though it may be more of a winter thing than a summer thing (for those sensitive to the appearance of their underarms while wearing shirts without sleeves), and its doesn’t always work by itself. 

2. Baking soda and corn starch or arrowroot powder: The corn starch or arrowroot here adds dryness, acting as a light antiperspirant if you’re worried about sweating. Be aware that some people are sensitive to corn starch and may experience an allergic reaction from using it in this manner.   

3. Rubbing alcohol and essential oils: Just combine 99 percent Isopropyl rubbing alcohol with a few drops of your choice essential oil and pour it into a small spray bottle. Spray the solution under your arms (it may sting for a second if you have just shaved). That’s it. 

Simple ingredients like lemon juice, vinegar and rubbing alcohol can kill the bacteria that causes bad body odor.
Photo by Melissa Doroquez/Courtesy

4. Lemon juice: Even simpler than the rubbing alcohol, try just rubbing half a lemon under your arms while showering (again, not right after a shave), let it sit for 5 minutes, then wash with soap and rinse. Pre-squeezed or purchased lemon juice also works. You can also try washing first and then dabbing your underarms with lemon juice after the shower–the citric acid kills the bacteria build-ups that cause unwanted body odor.

5. Apple cider vinegar: Same drill as the lemon juice. The vinegar works by lowering the pH of your skin to a point that bacteria can’t live there. One recommendation I saw suggested dusting your underarms with baby powder afterwards to avoid the vinegar’s smell.

6. Homemade deodorant recipes: Sometimes people do this because no other product works for them. Sometimes they do it for fun, or because baking soda and corn starch just don’t get the job done. Sometimes they do it because they can add their favorite herbal scents to it. There are many of these recipes floating around, the most popular of which seems to come from Amy’s Angry Chicken. There’s another here at Kitchen Stewardship, and even more here at Crunchy Betty and Survivorsareus. These recipes let you use herbal essential oils either for scent or for their bacteria and fungus-fighting powers. Tea tree, lavender, rosemary, ylang-ylang and bergamot are popular choices for both aims. One batch of deodorant has the potential to last several months to a year, and the average cost is reported at about $3 a batch.

If you try any of these, or have tried them in the past, let me know how they work for you! And please, if you develop a rash or some other allergic reaction to any product, stop using it and, if you are concerned, please see a health professional. If you feel the need to use a stronger antiperspirant, try to use it as sparingly as possible. The FDA has not found any direct relationship between the aluminum in antiperspirants and either breast cancer or Alzheimer’s, but they have not proven it to be safe either. My personal opinion is that chemically forcing your body to not sweat is unlikely to be healthy, since that is one of the principle ways the body sheds toxins.

Stay cool this summer!

Read More:Body Powder Gift Set – Polka Dot Cottage 
Test the safety of your cosmetics at the Skin Deep Database – The Environmental Working Group

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