What to Look for in a Natural Deodorant, and How to Make the Switch

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It's a myth that switching to natural deodorant requires an "armpit detox."
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You want to make the switch to natural deodorant, but you've read up on ​things​ on the internet, and well, you're kind of nervous about it. Some sites tell you that you'll go through a transition phase where you absolutely stink for a while, in part because your pits may be purging toxins from your conventional (read: non-natural) deodorant or antiperspirant.

Is that…true? And if so, how can you start swiping without the stink? We asked a dermatologist for the scoop.

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What Is Natural Deodorant, Exactly?

There's no strict definition of a natural deodorant or antiperspirant, so you'll have to look at each brand to get a sense of how they define it. But in general, it's all about the ingredients it ​doesn't​ contain.

That usually includes preservatives, sulfates, parabens, synthetic perfumes or dyes, Rina Allawh, MD, a dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology Group in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, tells LIVESTRONG.com. Propylene glycol is also often used in regular deodorant, as the ingredient blocks bacteria growth that causes a smell, she says. These are all additives that are known for causing skin irritation and allergies.

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While deodorant stops stink, antiperspirants take it a step further with ingredients, namely aluminum, that plug up sweat glands. When your body knows these glands are stoppered, sweating is reduced, per the International Hyperhidrosis Society. These plugs stay for about 24 hours and then get gradually washed away.

Natural deodorants usually don't contain aluminum, Dr. Allawh says. (P.S. Many people avoid antiperspirant out of the concern that aluminum is linked to breast cancer, but there is no evidence to suggest this is true, per the National Cancer Institute.)

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Instead, a natural deodorant might contain baking soda, tapioca starch and/or arrowroot powder to keep you dry and neutralize odor. It will focus on plant-based ingredients, as well as various oils (like coconut) and essential oils for a pleasant smell.

But also note that because there's no strict definition for a natural deodorant, various brands leave out or include different ingredients based on what their company considers "natural." One may use a plant-based propylene glycol, for instance. Another may leave out irritating ingredients but keep a form of aluminum (especially those labeled as "natural antiperspirants"). That's why it's important to read the ingredients on the label.

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About That 'Adjustment Period'

You'll hear a slew of warnings that you'll stink more while waiting for your body to transition from conventional to natural deodorant. Frightening! That shouldn't stop you from trying to make the change if you truly want to, though, especially because it might not even happen to you.

"I have heard about the 'adjustment period,' but there's really no reason that you should expect to purge toxins and be smelly," Dr. Allawh says. "I don't typically find that this is the case when patients switch over."

The issue might be that you were using an antiperspirant before and then switched to a natural deodorant, assuming that both are the same product. But deodorant is designed to lessen odor-producing bacteria, while antiperspirants take care of sweat and stink. If you're a heavy sweater and change from a regular antiperspirant to a natural deodorant, you might start to pit out more again — and smell.

Research shows that using antiperspirant or deodorant does influence armpit bacteria, some of which bring on B.O.

There was a study in ​PeerJ​ in 2016 that looked at what happens to the microbes on underarm skin when people start and stop using deodorant and antiperspirant. Both products decreased bacterial levels, which reduced smelliness.

However, things changed when people stopped swiping. During day two to five of stopping an antiperspirant, there was a greater regrowth of bacteria, but re-starting on antiperspirant decreased these levels once again.

Deodorant, on the other hand, didn't really affect these bacterial levels. That's likely because deodorants are easily washed away, whereas the sweat-plugging powers of aluminum-based antiperspirants affects the ability of bacteria to grow and flourish, researchers say.

So, whether you notice you smell differently after making the switch may depend on what you were using before and what ingredients your new product contains. It's also important to remember that sweat amount, bacteria and body odor vary from person to person.

Should You Do an Armpit Detox?

There’s no reason to try an armpit detox — aka using an underarm clay mask — unless you find it particularly soothing, Dr. Allawh says.

The aluminum in traditional antiperspirant does plug sweat glands, but it gradually washes out of skin after 24 hours, so it's not like your skin is holding in a bunch of "stuff" that it's just waiting to release.

What to Look for in a Natural Deodorant

"Natural" can mean a lot of different things, so make sure to read ingredient labels on any products before trying them.
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If you're ready to make the switch, keep these tips in mind before you shop.

1. The Right Active Ingredients for You

The good news about switching to a natural deodorant is that you can reduce the risk of any smelly transition period by looking for products that contain alternative ingredients that soak up sweat and keep odor away, like baking soda, tapioca starch or arrowroot powder Dr. Allawh says.

Finding the right product for you based on your needs will keep you fresh, so consider looking for a natural antiperspirant instead of a natural deodorant if heavy sweating is an issue for you.

Beyond that, be sure to read the label, because there's no universal definition of "natural" here, and some products may contain ingredients you want to avoid.

2. Other Ingredients That Benefit Your Skin

One of the best things about natural deodorant is the nourishing ingredients they're packed with — and they serve another purpose, too. "Shea butter and aloe vera are great ingredients that I talk to my patients about. They're typically not irritating and help to moisturize and rehydrate skin," Dr. Allawh says.

Even better, these skin silkifiers have anti-inflammatory properties that help keep bacteria formation at bay to reduce smell, she says. Make sure that your new product packs these.

Consider These Products

  • Ursa Major Hoppin' Fresh Deodorant​, with baking soda and aloe ($18 at Ulta.com)
  • Native Deodorant​, with arrowroot powder and shea butter ($11.97 at Amazon.com)
  • Each & Every Aluminum-Free Deodorant​, with tapioca starch and essential oils ($15 at EachandEvery.com)

How to Switch to Natural Deodorant

It can be as simple as tossing your old deodorant and swiping on your new natural stick the next day. But if one of the reasons you're switching is because you have sensitive skin, you may want to take it slow.

"A lot of these natural products can be irritating to the skin, especially armpit skin, which is actually thin and susceptible to rashes and allergic reactions," Dr. Allawh says.

What's more, when you swipe on the stick and then close up your armpit, skin rubs on skin, upping the risk of problems. So here's what to do, she says:

  1. Apply the new product to a test area on your forearm and watch for a reaction, such as irritation or burning.
  2. See redness or feel itchiness? Wait three to five days before trying another deodorant. It's possible that your skin can be more hypersensitive and angrily react to anything applied to it. So, wait it out and then reach for something else. Consider going for something that does not contain essential oils, which are often added for fragrance.
  3. Be on the lookout for other side effects, like armpit pimples. That's not your pits purging toxins. Rather, it's folliculitis, an acne-like bump caused by inflammation around the hair follicle. The cause? Something clogging the hair pore, like sweat or deodorant, Dr. Allawh says. She's seen this happen to patients using both traditional and natural deodorant. To get rid of armpit pimples, cleanse the areas with an antibacterial wash in the shower, she advises. And consider switching to a different product.

Tip

If you have major issues with sweating that deodorant or antiperspirant can’t address, talk to your dermatologist. “There are oral medications, as well as Botox, that can be helpful for excessive sweating,” Dr. Allawh says.

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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