When was the last time you worked up a sweat? If you were exercising or doing something strenuous, you probably didn’t care. But if you were on a date or in a job interview, you may have been embarrassed, perhaps because American society places such a premium on dry and odor-free.
Deodorants and antiperspirants help us smell sweet and stay dry, but they often contain synthetic ingredients that may irritate the skin or even be harmful to health. Take heart, though, because alternatives exist. Some products made from herbs and essential oils help fight odor and perspiration just as effectively as, and more mildly than, those that contain synthetic ingredients, and without risk of side effects.
Perspiration helps keep the body cool and clean. Production of sweat, which is made up of water, salt, and waste products from metabolism, is controlled by the temperature-regulating center of the brain. It’s triggered by activity, heat, humidity, stress, anxiety, and certain foods, such as hot peppers.
There are two types of sweat glands. Eccrine glands, which are found everywhere on the body, secrete sweat to help the body cool off. Underarm wetness comes from eccrines in the armpits. Apocrine glands, located in the armpits as well as around the ears and a few other places on the body, are scent glands. Apocrine glands exude a sticky substance that doesn’t produce an odor until it meets airborne bacteria.
Through the centuries, people have used fragrant oils and other aromatics to mask body odor and impart pleasant scents. But specific products to control underarm odor and wetness were developed only a century ago. The first commercially made underarm deodorant was introduced in the United States in 1888. It was a waxy cream that controlled odor probably because it contained zinc oxide, which has a weak ability to fight germs. The product also aimed to control sweat through its waxy base, which plugged pores, according to Karl Laden and Carl B. Felger, authors of Antiperspirants and Deodorants (Marcel Dekker, 1988).
Today, hundreds of deodorants and antiperspirants are on the market, and more than 90 percent of the U.S. population uses an antiperspirant or deodorant every day—and that doesn’t even include such products as deodorant soaps, according to authors Laden and Felger. The authors also note that sales of antiperspirants and deodorants total more than $1 billion a year in the United States alone.
Today’s antiperspirants and deodorants often contain artificial scents and colors, some of which have nothing to do with fighting odor or wetness. Some ingredients are harsh and can irritate the skin. One ingredient, aluminum chloride, was first used in commercial deodorants in about 1900. It was highly acidic and caused burning, stinging, and irritation, and it damaged clothing—but people used it anyway, because the aluminum stopped odor and wetness, according to Laden and Felger. Today, many manufacturers use a milder form of aluminum in many of their deodorants and antiperspirants.
Researchers disagree about how aluminum works to control sweat and body odor, says Pam Scheeler, a biochemist at Tom’s of Maine, a producer of natural deodorants, toothpastes, and other products. One theory is that aluminum sticks to the skin and forms a barrier that prevents sweat from escaping. This is a controversial point—some in the health-care field say that blocking perspiration can lead to serious health problems.
“Regular use of aluminum-containing deodorants may contribute to the clogging of underarm lymphatics and then to breast problems such as cystic disease,” writes Elson Haas, M.D., in his book Staying Healthy with Nutrition (Celestial Arts, 1992). “Blocking skin and sweat pores with aluminum antiperspirants has always seemed strange to me. I would think it would be better to cleanse regularly, reduce stress, balance weight, and eat a wholesome diet.”
Haas adds that aluminum toxicity has been implicated in aging disorders; some believe that long-term accumulation of aluminum in the brain may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease (aluminum is also found naturally in food and water and is used to make cookware and many body-care products). But, Haas notes, no one has proven that aluminum is indeed toxic. Without a definitive answer about aluminum, avoiding it is a matter of individual choice, says Scheeler of Tom’s of Maine, who selects products for her personal use according to what is known about their ingredients.
“If an ingredient never existed before, there is little idea of its long-term effects,” she says. “If a simpler, more proven ingredient is available, that’s what I’ll choose. I’d be wary of highly processed, less proven ingredients such as synthetic fragrances, colorants, and antibacterials that may cause an allergic reaction.”
Bathing is the best way to control body odor, no doubt about it. But in his book The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997), James Duke, Ph.D., writes, “If you don’t feel socially at ease without a deodorant, there’s no need to use commercial roll-ons or sprays. Herbs have a long and illustrious history of use as deodorants. Not surprisingly, the herbs most widely used all have antibacterial action against the micro-organisms that make our (sweat) smell unpleasant.”
Many manufacturers of natural products use herbs to make deodorants and antiperspirants. Here’s a sampling:
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
First used in Egypt, calendula is a potent fighter of bacteria. It is often used as an antiseptic to help wounds and rashes heal, quell inflammation, and soothe insect bites. Yet calendula is mild, so it’s good for delicate, sensitive skin.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
The essential oil of chamomile has been used to heal wounds since ancient times; it has a spicy and relaxing scent and an antiseptic quality. Studies show that it kills bacteria, and chamomile blossom extracts have soothing and restorative properties.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Coriander essential oil is an antiseptic, and a liquid carbon dioxide extract of coriander seeds has been reported to fight bacteria. (Never use full-strength essential oils directly on the skin—they can burn.)
Lichens are plants made up of algae and fungus that grow on solid surfaces, such as rocks. Many lichen species contain acids that combat bacteria; the most common is called usnic acid and is found in the lichen genus Usnea.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
For many, oregano is just a seasoning. Traditional Chinese physicians, however, have used oregano for centuries to treat itchy skin, among other ailments. It contains thymol and carvacrol, strong fighters of fungal infections. Take care, though: in essential oil form, oregano can irritate the skin.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Rosemary was the main ingredient in the first cologne and, until the twentieth century, fragrant rosemary leaves were burned to purify French hospitals. In deodorants, it’s used as a scent and to invigorate sluggish, underactive skin; it also contains chemicals that may help fight infection-causing bacteria.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Several studies show that sage cuts perspiration by as much as 50 percent. Sage oil has been traditionally used as an antiseptic and astringent, tightening pores and absorbing oils that attract dirt to the skin. In addition, phenolic acids isolated from sage have been shown to fight germs.
Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
This large Australian tree is related to the eucalyptus. Tea tree oil is an antibacterial agent that is used to disinfect wounds and treat many skin conditions. It is also one of the most powerful and nonirritating aromatic antiseptics.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
This herb’s common name has nothing to do with witchcraft. In medieval Middle English, witch was spelled wych or wyche and meant pliant or flexible. Witch hazel’s branches are springy, and Native Americans used them to make bows. Witch hazel’s leaves, twigs, and bark contain fairly high concentrations of tannins, which provide astringent properties to tighten pores and absorb oils that would otherwise attract dirt.
Many hard-to-pronounce ingredients on the label of a natural deodorant come from plants. For example, the compounds allantoin and azulene are found in comfrey and chamomile, respectively. But when an ingredient is “made” or “derived” from a plant source, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s completely natural.
“All through the cosmetic and vitamin world, we talk the language of natural and synthetic, when most of our tools are really in the nether world between them,” says Jerry Whittemore, Ph.D., vice president of science at Jason Cosmetics. “Almost all cosmetic ingredients go through a synthetic step.”
And some additives, such as glycerol stearate, may come from either animal or vegetable sources, but manufacturers generally don’t specify the source on the label.
Here are definitions of some ingredients found in natural deodorants:
Alcloxa: a skin soother from comfrey
Allantoin: often synthesized, but found naturally in comfrey
Arginine: an amino acid that maintains pH
Azulene: an anti-inflammatory and analgesic from German chamomile
Buffered aluminum sulfate: an aluminum alternative and astringent
Ceteareth-20: a lubricant derived from coconut oil
Cetearyl alcohol: an emulsifier and emollient derived from coconut or palm
Cocamide DEA: a thickener derived from coconut oil
Decyl oleate: an emollient derived from sweet orange or paraffin
Dicaprylate-dicapriate: an ester synthesized from natural fatty acids
DL-panthenol: synthetic vitamin B5 (synthetic is more stable)
Glycerol stearate: an emulsifier that also maintains Ph; glycerol comes from vegetable and animal fats
Hydroxyethycellulose: a binder derived from plant cells
Imidazolidinyl urea: a synthetic preservative
Leucine: an amino acid that maintains pH
Methylparaben: an antimicrobial, antibacterial, biodegradable preservative
Octyl palmitate: an emollient synthesized from coconut and palm oils
Oropylparaben: an antifungal and antibacterial compound
PEG-100 or PEG-20 stearate: thickeners and emulsifiers; “PEG” is an alcohol that can come from grain or petrochemicals
Potassium alum: an aluminum substitute from bauxite ore
Silica: a mineral that gives a “dry feeling”
Gloria Bucco is an independent journalist who specializes in natural health issues. Her article “Fading the Winter Blues” appeared in the January/February 1998 issue of Herbs for Health.