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Ask an expert: Do natural deodorants actually work?

Cosmetic scientist Florence Adepoju explains.

Natural deodorant brand Fussy launched in the UK in October 2020.


With demand for “clean” personal care products on the rise, brands are hitting the market with a new vision for how modern natural deodorants should look, feel and smell.

In the past two years, we’ve seen the launch of Wild, a brand that sells refillable aluminum cases paired with natural deodorant pods, Ultrella, a New Zealand company that packs its natural recipe in squeeze pouches, and Akt, a cream deodorant that comes with a Gua Sha-style applicator. Last fall, Fussy launched in the U.K. with its own refillable, natural deodorant concept.

These brands follow in the footsteps of Myro, Corpus Naturals, Nuud and others that — through their modern look and feel — prove that today's natural deodorants aren't keen on the crunchy, granola vibe of the past.

Working up a sweat

Natural deodorant sales are expected to hit $159 million by 2025, growing at a rate of 14% per year, according to Grand View Research. It’s not just small brands smelling a trend. In November 2017, P&G bought deodorant startup Native for $100 million; one month later, news broke that Unilever had acquired Portland-based Schmidt’s Naturals for a “nine-figure” sum.

Natural deodorant has never had more momentum – but it’s going to take additional convincing before people ditch their antiperspirants en masse. In the U.S., organic deodorant sales account for just 23% of the overall market.

Because there's no regulation outlining standards for "clean" ingredients and what makes them effective, we are left wondering: do natural deodorants actually work?

We asked cosmetic scientist Florence Adepoju, also the founder of makeup brand MDM Flow, to explain.

Florence Adepoju

What’s the difference between deodorant and antiperspirant?

Antiperspirants contain aluminum that stops you from sweating. A deodorant instead either neutralizes the sweat or masks the scent.

Which ingredients do natural deodorant brands typically use?

They’ll contain ingredients that have antibacterial properties – because sweat doesn’t naturally smell bad, it’s the bacteria in the sweat – things like sodium bicarbonate, magnesium hydroxide and sodium chloride. Some brands will also use shea butter and coconut oil, which do have antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, but they’re not as [well understood] in terms of their function as those others.

All the natural deodorant formulas I’ve looked at also contain essential oils. Some are very floral, some are citrusy, and some are stronger scents, like bergamot or sage. All of these mask the scent of body odor.

Some of those ingredients don’t sound that natural.

There’s no technical definition for natural products, it’s more of a marketing term. Ingredients like magnesium hydroxide may be considered natural based on how they are sourced. Sodium chloride, for example, is the chemical name for salt and occurs readily in nature.

Are these ingredients actually more gentle on the skin?

You can react to a natural deodorant. Some people will find that sodium bicarbonate causes sensitivity, depending on how much of it is in the formula.

Some natural deodorant brands use thickening agents to give it that balm-like texture. Those are ingredients like sodium stearate and propylene glycol, which give it that firm, soap bar texture and make it easier to disperse the ingredients within the formula. So you may be less likely to get an adverse reaction with those types of products because you’re not going to be able to get a lot of the material onto your skin. With a cream formula, it’s easier to overuse it and then have too much essential oil on the skin, to the point where it causes irritation.

If your skin’s getting really red, or you have an itchy sensation, don’t think, “oh, it’s because this is a natural product, that’s going to happen.” You’re actually having an adverse reaction and you should stop using it.

That being said, I work with essential oils, and I don’t have any sensitivity issues. It really depends on your own reaction to these ingredients.

One of the reasons these products are popular is because people are worried about ingredients like aluminum. Are non-natural deodorants unsafe?

As a formulator, I can say that aluminum is safe in antiperspirant formulations. The big brands do a lot of testing to ensure the safety of their products.

But sweating is natural. So as much as antiperspirant or non-natural deodorant isn’t harmful, sweat does have a natural function in that it cools your body down when you get hot.

What are the changes someone might notice when switching to natural deodorant?

If you’ve just started using a natural deodorant, you might think you’re sweating more. But that’s probably because you were never really sweating in the first place, because you were using antiperspirants. And because we’re used to not having much odor at all, sometimes it’s difficult to even figure out what is a bad odor.

You’ll need to get used to it. If you use it for a few weeks and you notice that okay, you’re still sweaty and you smell bad, it might be that the deodorant doesn’t have the right antimicrobial or antibacterial properties, or the scent it uses might not be masking enough. It might be a case of finding a natural deodorant that smells a bit stronger or has more antibacterial properties.

Are there some people for whom natural deodorants just won’t work?

You do see stories online where people say, “I’ve tried everything, but I still smell bad.” The truth is, some people just have sweat that’s difficult to mask. In that case, you either have the option of going back to antiperspirants or actively cleansing the area as often as possible to stop bacteria getting into your sweat.

This is the thing with natural deodorants. Whether it works or not often depends as much on the person as it does the brand.

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