Is natural deodorant better for the environment and my skin?

YOU may have seen Wild doing the rounds on social media. A refillable, subscription-based natural deodorant company, Roz Purcell is an advocate, as is Emma Louise Connolly. Its most recent advert shows a women hop into bed with a polar bear to “talk dirty.” She tells her would-be Arctic lover that she buys single-use plastic, and lets the tap run while she brushes her teeth. However, she obliterates any hint of a moral compass when she admits to spraying her armpits with an aerosol can. It might be an extreme illustration but the message is quite simple: to ignore the issue of climate change is a form of ‘wild’ savagery in itself (not the interspecies relationship apparently).

The natural deodorant market is gaining momentum. It hasn’t always had the best reputation; gripes have included things like sweat-stained clothes, a pungent body odour, and a paste-like film on underarms from an ingredient that features heavily — bicarbonate of soda.

However, natural deodorants have developed a sexier reputation of late. Whether it’s celeb endorsements they have to thank for that, (Justin Bieber launched one in 2019 in collaboration with Schmidt’s Naturals) clever marketing, or simply an improved formula, the question is up for debate. So are natural deodorants better for your health than antiperspirants or is it a matter of personal choice?

The word “natural” has become a red flag in the dermatology world for misinformation, says Dr Cathal O’Connor, an academic dermatology fellow with ICAT/UCC. There is no credible evidence that aluminium-based antiperspirants are linked to either cancer or dementia, he says, despite numerous advertising campaigns and articles that claim otherwise.

“Rarely, some people who are allergic to aluminium can develop contact dermatitis which is easily treatable by switching to a non-aluminium-based deodorant. Aluminium is in fact commonly found in nature.” It is important, says Dr O’Connor to adopt a sceptical approach to anyone who has a financial incentive to sell their products.

Dr Mark Hudson-Peacock is a consultant dermatologist at Stratum Dermatology Clinic in London. The chemical compounds in antiperspirants work by reacting with the water in your sweat to form a gel-like plug, says Dr Hudson-Peacock, which then prevents the sweat from being released. However, this does not stop the toxins from escaping, he says.

While Dr Hudson-Peacock debunks this commonly-held perception as myth, he does accept that aluminium antiperspirants can lead to “increased sensitivity of the skin” and in some rare cases minor skin infections in the armpits, as bacterial growth can sometimes be affected.

So are natural deodorants better for your health than antiperspirants or is it simply just a matter of personal choice? Donagh Quigley believes it’s a bit of both. Managing Director of The Handmade Soap Company, a natural skincare company that sells handmade soaps, lotions and candles, Donagh believes that sweating is a natural process, one that we shouldn’t disrupt. The newest addition to the company’s arsenal is Anam, a natural roll-on stick of deodorant.

Three years in the making, the unisex deodorant called Anam is completely compostable and the packaging will biodegrade in the compost bin, as well as the product. Donagh’s credo is if you don’t understand what the ingredients are, you probably shouldn’t be putting it into your body. Having worked as a professional thatcher, his hands were in “rag order” and he set about creating a company where he could use his craft and combine his love for environmentally, natural products.

Anam deodorant by the Handmade Soap Company.
Anam deodorant by the Handmade Soap Company.

“The company has just been an extension of our philosophy. So we’ve [Donogh’s wife Gemma is also a director at the company] always been the kind of people who make their own bread, had stuff fermenting in the corner, whether it’s kimchi or kombucha.” Something was always bubbling away in the couple’s household whether that was homemade wine or creams and lotions.

“I was just really trying to imbue some of that philosophy into the business.” 18 months ago, the Handmade Soap Company launched the Anam range, which translates as the Irish word for soul. A manifestation of the greenest technology they could find, he worked for several years before settling on the right combination of ingredients.

“I mean the products have to be amazing, you know, otherwise, why are we bothering?” As part of this range, they introduced compostable refill pouches for liquid soaps and the idea was to launch the deodorant but it took three years to get the formula right. An active person, he used antiperspirants in his teens and 20s but he noticed his pores were getting clogged up quite frequently, and his skin had lots of red dots, almost a rash-like appearance.

Rather than work to block your sweat pores like most mainstream antiperspirants, Anam deodorant works to combat body odour. Using predominately plant oils, it also harnesses the antibacterial properties of sage leaf extract and zinc salts to counteract the bacteria that makes you smell.

How does this product measure up to antiperspirants for someone who sweats a lot? Donogh himself is a trail runner and says that he has tested it out on himself. He finds he can go back to work after a run without smelling.

Anam deodorant claims to be the world's first-ever fully compostable deodorant product with biodegradable packaging.
Anam deodorant claims to be the world’s first-ever fully compostable deodorant product with biodegradable packaging.

Donogh believes that in the era of mass consumption, to make products cheaply and stably, the larger corporations have to use chemicals. Since the skin is the biggest organ of the body and lots of vital functions lie beneath it, like the lymph nodes, Donogh believes that it is an absorbent area. Anam is as effective at masking odour as the next deodorant but Donogh believes its true effectiveness is how gentle it is to your skin.

The natural deodorant community appears to be a very supportive one and Donogh tells me that he doesn’t mind if people aren’t using his own deodorant as long as they are using a natural one. This is how I find out about Ben Breslin, founder of Vico deodorant, a Cork company that sells natural roll-on deodorant in three different scents; orange blossom, lemongrass and lavender. Having studied international relations in university, Ben was conscious of plastic waste and the chemicals emitted into the environment produced by the antiperspirant aerosols. Rather than blocking his sweat pores completely, he wanted to experiment with various oils that would deodorize the bacteria instead.

During lockdown, Ben enlisted his girlfriend and his entire family in the making of his deodorant and once they decided on a formula he was happy with, he expanded to a bigger space in Currahaly, Farnanes.

Ben Breslin's family and girlfriend were heavily involved in the testing process and supported his decision to leave a job at the HSE to pursue his natural deodorant business as a full-time endeavour.
Ben Breslin’s family and girlfriend were heavily involved in the testing process and supported his decision to leave a job at the HSE to pursue his natural deodorant business as a full-time endeavour.

Ben points out that it was a personal choice to move towards chemical-free deodorant but he quickly noticed a growing cohort of his family, friends and extended social circle register interest in the products. Vico used bicarbonate of soda as its active ingredient which both neutralises the acid in sweat, and eradicates underarm bacteria.

For Ben, it’s an extension of his life philosophy, in a similar vein to Donagh, as he prefers to eschew chemicals and toxins where he can. He concurs, however, that the evidence to support the claim that natural deodorant is better for your skin is “patchy” at best. While Ben is passionate about his product, he “never, ever” tells people they should use it. 

Rather, he poses the question “why would you put chemicals on your skin when there’s a natural alternative?” Despite conflicting studies and opinions, Ben advises people to be aware of who is putting out these studies — whether they’re independent-financed or made by brands themselves. 

He has noticed that even some of the mainstream brands are releasing natural deodorants “because they see that people aren’t that comfortable using those ingredients anymore.” Vico deodorant is a vegan-certified product and uses natural ingredients like magnesium, baking soda, coconut oil, wax, vitamin E, tapioca starch and shea butter.

Vico orange blossom deodorant was an unsuspecting hit for Ben, who is currently developing a scentless deodorant he hopes to launch soon.
Vico orange blossom deodorant was an unsuspecting hit for Ben, who is currently developing a scentless deodorant he hopes to launch soon.

A lot of discussion online centres on antiperspirants’ use of aluminium, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. However, very few of these studies provide conclusive evidence that supports this claim. The US National Cancer Institute mentions a study, conducted in 2002 where participants who used antiperspirants did not show any increase in the risk of breast cancer.

This study had 1606 female candidates, 813 of whom had breast cancer and 793 women with no evidence of a history of breast cancer. A more recent study in 2021 found that while we are exposed to aluminium through antiperspirants, (and many other avenues) that injected mice with aluminium found that it had “carcinogenic potential.” Both Ben and Donogh swear by the natural deodorants but do advise allowing an adjustment period while your body gets accustomed to sweating.

While the decision to switch to natural deodorant is a personal one, these eco-friendly Irish alternatives tick the boxes when it comes to sustainability and compostable packaging.

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