There’s no question that natural deodorants are having their moment; for evidence, look no further than pop star Justin Bieber, who launched one in 2019. But as with other products marketed as “natural,” there is no standard definition for what constitutes a natural underarm deodorant—and the products may be distinguished more by what they don’t contain than what they do. Here’s a look.
What’s not in them
Note, first, that deodorant and antiperspirant are not the same thing, though they’re often combined in conventional products (“antiperspirant deodorant”). Deodorant keeps you from smelling bad and may even improve how you smell; antiperspirant stops you from sweating.
Almost all natural deodorants tout that they are free of aluminum, the active ingredient in antiperspirants. Aluminum-containing antiperspirants have been widely rumored on the internet and elsewhere to cause breast cancer, but good-quality research over the years has not supported this link. Nor does aluminum in antiperspirants cause Alzheimer’s disease or kidney disease, as has been promulgated.
Many natural deodorants also boast that they are free of parabens and phthalates. Parabens are a class of preservatives in cosmetics and personal-care products; phthalates are used in synthetic fragrances (they’re not required to be listed on labels themselves, but if a product lists “fragrance” as an ingredient, it likely contains phthalates). Both belong to a group of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, which research suggests may adversely affect reproductive health, fetal development, and thyroid function when absorbed through the skin or inhaled. For this reason, some people prefer to avoid endocrine disruptors in products they apply to the body, and some (but not all) experts recommend avoiding them.
In addition, as with aluminum, parabens in antiperspirants have been rumored to cause breast cancer—but this has been debunked, according to the National Cancer Institute, plus most conventional antiperspirant deodorants sold in the U.S. don’t contain parabens anyway.
Some natural deodorant products also exclude propylene glycol, a moisturizing agent that can cause skin reactions in sensitive people.
What you will find in them
Natural deodorants contain a mix of botanical and other ingredients that may help absorb moisture, neutralize or mask odor, or inhibit the growth of odor-causing bacteria. (Underarm odor comes from the metabolic byproducts that are formed when bacteria on your skin break down certain components of your sweat.) Among the ingredients are activated charcoal, arrowroot, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), bamboo, corn starch, hops, kaolin clay, or tapioca starch to absorb moisture; some of these might help neutralize odor, too. There might also be coconut oil, tea tree oil, or magnesium hydroxide to inhibit bacterial growth. Essential oils, such as lavender, rose, orange, lemongrass, eucalyptus, and sage, are used mainly to mask bad odors, but some of these oils may additionally have weak antibacterial effects.
You may also see an ingredient labeled “potassium alum,” which is an aluminum-containing mineral that has larger molecules than aluminum chloride, the form of aluminum in antiperspirants—so it stays on the skin’s surface rather than being absorbed. Instead of inhibiting sweating, it’s claimed to work by creating an environment in which odor-causing bacteria can’t survive. But we couldn’t find evidence either supporting or refuting this.
When to go au naturel
It’s fine to choose a natural deodorant if you prefer to avoid antiperspirants or if your skin is sensitive to an ingredient in a conventional product—but note that “natural” ingredients, especially essential oils or potassium alum, can also cause skin reactions in sensitive people. The products vary widely in price and form—there are sticks, roll-ons, creams, gels, sprays, soap bar-like solids, “stones” or “crystals” of potassium alum, and single-use wipes.
Some of the companies that make natural deodorants don’t test on animals or include animal ingredients, so that could be a draw if you prefer to buy from such companies. That said, being “natural” doesn’t guarantee that a product wasn’t animal tested, nor is every conventional deodorant necessarily tested on animals. Check individual product labels or company websites to find out more. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group includes animal testing information for some antiperspirant and deodorant products in its Skin Deep Database. The database also rates numerous deodorants (both natural and conventional) based on ingredients the group considers to be of concern.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see 5 Dangerous Chemicals in Your Cosmetics.