Natural deodorants: do they actually work?

University of Melbourne Professor of Dermatology Rod Sinclair, founder of research centre Sinclair Dermatology, says not enough is known about the effects of these common deodorant ingredients.

Another driver for consumers is the health of the planet and the impact of the seven billion kilograms of plastic waste created by the deodorant industry each year, as well as the contribution of fragrances emitted by aerosol deodorants to air pollution.

“Ethical and environmental responsibility is a key aspect of modern conscious consumer choices,” says Emily Fletcher, founder of the Clean + Conscious Awards, which celebrate natural and socially responsible products.

Enter natural deodorant with their promises of being better for the planet, cruelty-free, and without “nasties”, all while (hopefully) making us smell better.

What makes us smell in the first place?

We all have a slightly different microbiome in our underarms – in fact, the bacteria in each arm pit is slightly different too, meaning one can be smellier than the other – so what works in one person might not work for you.

Sweat itself doesn’t smell, but our apocrine glands also produce fatty acids, which are then broken down by the bacteria in our underarms, producing scent.

“We all have our own alchemy of fatty acids, that’s why we have our own body odour,” explains Theesan.

The amount and composition of those fatty acids can vary depending on the time of the month or our reproductive stage, she says. “Oestrogen and progesterone can dictate how differently we smell.”

Testosterone and stress levels can also affect how much we sweat. “When we are stressed all the time, cortisol and adrenaline will affect the composition of our fatty acids, and we sweat more,” says Theesan.


Other influences include the clothes we wear (natural fibres are better than artificial fibres or polyester because they don’t trap sweat); our diet (reducing sugar intake and increasing prebiotic foods such as apples, bananas, legumes, garlic, sauerkraut and oats can be helpful); and ironically, prolonged antiperspirant use (which may stimulate more odour-producing bacteria). And while underarm probiotics, which aim to populate our pits with good bacteria, are a growing trend, a simple shower each day using soap can have a similar effect, says Sinclair.

Excessive sweat and body odour can be caused by underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, and require attention from a doctor, but a little sweat and odour is no big deal, says Theesan. “Work on your gut health, work on your stress levels.”

How do natural deodorants work?

“Whether it is natural or not is not the critical feature,” says Sinclair. “It is the antimicrobial efficiency that will determine effect.

“There are natural and synthetic antimicrobials with differing effect. Penicillin is natural. Antiperspirants contain aluminium, which is natural.”

And although Theesan herself uses a natural deodorant (she likes Weleda and Sukin), she says that if an antiperspirant works for you and gives you peace of mind, it is fine to use.

“Natural products are so unpoliced. You can have high levels of lavender or sandalwood that can give a contact dermatitis on some people,” she says.

Fletcher explains that effective natural deodorants tend to contain specific ingredients that alter the pH of the underarm. “This is usually done by creating a more alkaline environment under the arms with ingredients such as bicarbonate or magnesium,” she says. “Others introduce mild acidity using alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). Both methods can be extremely effective.”

Some products incorporate moisture-absorbing ingredients, such as arrowroot or clay to help manage perspiration.

The best of the best

The Clean + Conscious Award winners were announced today. As a panelist for the awards, I was able to test a range of natural deodorants, which are typically packaged using biodegradable or recyclable materials, and avoid plastics and palm oil.

While I now use an antiperspirant on puffer jacket or synthetic material days, the rest of the time I have found sticks that (mostly) stop the stink.

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