I reluctantly stopped using conventional antiperspirants and deodorants a couple of years ago because they have too many questionable ingredients for my comfort – like petroleum products, parabens and aluminum. While aluminum hasn't been proven to cause cancer and dementia, I'm a big fan of the precautionary principle, and parabens and other ingredients found in your average tube of antiperspirant are established toxins. The switch to natural options eventually led me to making my own deodorant, which also means I'm saving money and reducing waste by reusing my own containers.
However, I used mainstream antiperspirant long after I switched to organic shampoo, handmade soaps and non-toxic lotions, because the truth is that most less-sketchy deodorant options out there just don't work very well at keeping you either dry or odour-free. And I don't enjoy being sweaty, or smelly. I suspect most people don't.
I tried a half-dozen different kinds from the health food store, all of which left me thoroughly disappointed (and with a collection of barely-used deodorant sticks in plastic packaging) and then one day last summer I found a sample of a cream deodorant I'd picked up at last year's Green Living Show. I was skeptical, partly because so many other products had let me down, but also because...it was a cream. That I had to rub on my armpits with my fingers. This seemed a little strange, but I gave it a go. And it worked – incredibly well. I was completely dry and smelled awesome all day.
Awed by this magical concoction, I looked up the ingredients and immediately wondered how the entire world doesn't know that all you need to avoid being sweaty and smelly are two basic household ingredients you can easily combine all by yourself. It seems so incredibly obvious now.
The foundation of pretty much all good natural deodorants, homemade or commercial, is baking soda, famous for its odour-destroying abilities, and cornstarch, a go-to absorbent (or arrowroot powder). Generally added to these are essential oils, for their anti-bacterial properties (it's the bacteria that collect in your armpits that cause odour to begin with), and something to hold it all together, usually coconut oil or vegetable glycerin. You can mix up a batch in five minutes.
It turns out a lot of people do know about this. The search results for DIY deodorant recipes on Pinterest are endless. I've tried a few concoctions, and I encourage you to experiment to see what works for you. If you're not into making it yourself, I've also included a couple of ready-to-buy options at the end.
Some general guidelines
- All you need is the basic formula: odour absorber (baking soda) + moisture absorber (cornstarch or arrowroot) + base + bacteria-fighter (essential oils). The essential oils aren't, um, essential, but they definitely help. Coconut oil also has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.
- Baking soda can be irritating. If you have sensitive skin, use it sparingly. I got seriously itchy after about 6 days of using that first sample, and again when I used equal parts baking soda and cornstarch in my first batch. I find I do just fine with little-to-no baking soda.
- Start small. Whatever recipe you decide to try, start with a very small batch and test it out for a few days. If it isn't working, try adding a little more of whatever component seems to be lacking. If it's irritating, add more of everything but the baking soda.
- You want more of a paste than a cream. I know I've got the right balance when it's almost crumbly.
- Don't keep it too long. Even with anti-bacterial properties, the lack of preservatives is another argument for small batches, and cleaning your container thoroughly in between. Keeping the same stuff around for a long time + irritated skin from the baking soda could lead to an infection (especially if you add shaving to the mix).
- Use organic ingredients, especially the cornstarch, which otherwise is probably made from GMO corn. Organic glycerin may be hard to find.
Recipes to try
These are tester-sized recipes I adjusted over a few days, so they're rough measurements and make very small amounts. Scale them up once you figure out what works. If you're not set on measuring, just start mixing: you need least as much of the dry ingredients as wet, probably around a 2:1 dry-to-wet ratio.
Everyone's body chemistry is different so everyone will need a slightly different formula. These are very low on baking soda because that's what I need; most recipes call for as much baking soda as cornstarch. So consider these something to start from – and feel free to check out other recipes elsewhere first (like this one, this one or this one).
Coconut Oil base
- 1 ½ tsp coconut oil
- 2 ½ tsp cornstarch/arrowroot
- ½ tsp baking soda
- a few drops each of tea tree and peppermint essential oils
- ½ tsp vegetable glycerin
- ½ tsp shea butter
- ½ tsp cornstarch/arrowroot
- ¼ tsp baking soda
- a few drops each of tea tree and lemon essential oils
I mix it up right in the small glass container I'm going to keep it in – less to clean. A tiny mason jar is my go-to option.
A lot of recipes suggest melting the coconut oil and/or shea butter, but I like being able to judge the consistency as I'm mixing. Mashing it with a fork works just fine; Nadia at Body Unburdened uses her hands to add a little heat. If you do melt it, avoid the microwave so you don't destroy the anti-bacterial properties!
Which essential oils you use is up to you. I suggest using tea tree for its anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, and I usually add something else for scent. Peppermint essential oil is very strong so you only need a couple drops. Check the bottle to make sure your oils are skin-friendly first!
While this is not an anti-perspirant (that is, it doesn't stop you from sweating), the right amount of cornstarch or arrowroot powder will keep you relatively dry by absorbing sweat. It's not actually magic, so I can't promise it will hold up under extreme circumstances like rigorous exercise or a 35-degree day.
Other things to try
- French green clay (aka bentonite clay) for added absorbtion power. Clays are often used in skin care products for their detoxifying and anti-bacterial potential. (Note: French green clay has trace minerals including aluminum.)
- Beeswax will harden the mixture and keep it from melting if that's a concern. With a firm enough formula, you can pour or mash it into an old deodorant stick!
- Pure aloe vera gel, which could help prevent irritation from the baking soda.
Products you can buy
- Purely Great – I don't recommend this one for those with very sensitive skin, but I can vouch for how well it works!
- Primal Pit Paste has a low/no-baking soda option called Happy Pits. I haven't tried this one, but the ingredients speak for themselves.
- Check out your local health food store for other brands, possibly including local options! Here in Kitchener-Waterloo, we have Cocos Nucifera, which is also available online. This one works, but I do find the baking soda level slightly irritating after about a week.
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