Do 'natural' deodorants work as well as regular ones?

The early days of deodorant advertising convinced the masses that we shouldn't stink. See more personal hygiene pictures.
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We've all been there -- stuck in an elevator or a crowded subway with the sweaty guy who just finished his morning workout. He stinks. But don't get too judgmental; we all stink from time to time. Humans emit a somewhat foul smelling body odor, especially when you go without bathing or fail to use underarm deodorant. Some people stink worse than others, but we all emit these odors. It's called an odortype, and yours is based on environmental factors, what you eat and who you came from. That's right, genetics play a part in how bad you smell, so thank mom and dad for that one.

You may think that body odor has long been taboo, but it wasn't until the 1950s that Western society deemed it a turnoff. This just so happened to coincide with the major advertising campaigns for deodorants and antiperspirants. Mere coincidence? You can be the judge of that, but no matter how it all came to pass, reeking of body odor is now frowned upon in most Western countries. So much that sales of antiperspirants and deodorants in the United States topped $2.5 billion in 2006 [source: Mintel].


Most people swear by their brand of underarm protection. They find something that works for them, whether it's a deodorant or an antiperspirant, and use it faithfully. Some go for stick or roll-on, some opt for the spray can. You can go with an unscented variety or one that smells baby-powder-fresh or like a musky spice. There are dozens of different products to choose from, including some natural deodorants for people looking to avoid the harsh chemical ingredients contained in the non-natural brands. But do these natural products really keep you from smelling? We'll get to the bottom of it on the following pages.

Non-natural Deodorants

"Say, Jim, how about we add a little extra parabens in this batch to see what happens."
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When it comes to underarm odor protection, you can go with an antiperspirant to keep you from sweating or a deodorant to help mask the odors caused when you sweat. Perspiring is a natural function of the human body. It helps to regulate your body temperature and balance your salt levels. The thing is, sweat doesn't actually have an odor. The foul smell that comes from sweating too much under your arms comes from bacteria on the skin's surface. Your underarms have something called apocrine glands. They carry secretions of fats and proteins from within your body, riding a wave of sweat, to the outer surface of your skin. It's these fats and proteins that react with bacteria to create the distinct smell known as axillary body odor.

If you choose an antiperspirant, you'll be getting a product that helps to block the sweat glands under your arms. No sweat means no secretion of fats and proteins and, ideally, no odor. The problem with antiperspirants is that they contain a host of chemical ingredients that some feel are potentially harmful to your health. To block the sweat under your arms, antiperspirants use aluminum compounds to clog the skin's pores. These compounds have been under fire in recent years as being tied to breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the American Cancer Society and the Mayo Clinic all say that there is no proven link to these diseases, many consumers still prefer to exercise caution in using these kinds of antiperspirants.


Non-natural deodorants also contain some suspect chemical ingredients that many folks try to stay away from. Triclosan is one of them. It's classified as a pesticide by the FDA and used in deodorants to kill bacteria that causes body odor. Parabens are another one on many people's hit list. They're preservatives found in virtually every personal care product you'll find in your bathroom, unless you're into the natural thing. Parabens have been found in breast cancer tumors, causing the cautious consumer to avoid them in favor of products that don't use chemical preservatives.

So what's a discerning shopper to do? The answer could lie in all-natural deodorants, but do they work? Find out on the following page.


All-natural Deodorants

Tom's of Maine is a popular natural deodorant.
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If you want to avoid parabens, aluminum compounds and triclosan, you can opt for an all-natural alternative to meet your armpit's needs. These products have become increasingly popular in recent years as many consumers are dodging products chock full of chemical ingredients in favor of those that take a more natural approach. The goal of a natural deodorant is essentially the same as a non-natural brand -- reduce the amount of bacteria in your armpit. Instead of using triclosan to kill the bacteria, they use natural ingredients like plant extracts and essential oils to reduce the bacteria count. These essential oils also have pleasing smells that help to mask the stink under your arms. Baking soda is another common ingredient natural deodorants use instead of using parabens, along with natural preservatives like vitamin E.

There are also all-natural crystal deodorants you can opt for. These are dry crystals that are wet and applied under your arms. When you do so, a thin layer of the crystal sticks to your skin, and its mineral salts help to reduce the bacteria levels. The mineral in this case is called alum, a natural compound that has molecules so large they can't be absorbed into the skin.


So do these all-natural options work as well as their chemically-laden counterparts? Unfortunately, there isn't a black and white answer. It all kind of depends on you and your body. For some, natural deodorants that contain essential oils like lavender and tea tree do a great job at keeping you smelling fresh as a daisy all day long. For others who tend to sweat more, they don't work as well as the non-natural deodorants, but do a good enough job to make the chemicals worth avoiding. For heavy sweaters, the natural varieties don't work very well -- there's simply too much perspiration and bacteria to keep in check. Some people swear by the crystal deodorants, while others claim they don't work at all. It's all about giving it a try and seeing how your body reacts to it.

While some of these products work for some people, something none of them can do is to stop you from sweating. So far, there isn't an all-natural antiperspirant that can block your skin's pores. If you're interested in trying some all-natural deodorants, you may have to shop around and go through some trial and error to find one that works for you. Just make sure you have some understanding friends and family in the meantime.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • "Antiperspirants and Deodorants - US - February 2007." 2007.
  • "Natural Deodorants - Do They Stop Sweating?" 2009.
  • "Natural deodorants." 2009.
  • "Should You Consider Using Natural Deodorants?" 2009.
  • "The Benefits of Natural Deodorants and How They Work." 2009.
  • Belger, Marisa. "Want a fresh, green deodorant? Don't sweat it!" Oct. 17, 2007.
  • Lagorio, Christine. "The Cancer-Antiperspirant 'Myth'." Dec. 5, 2005.
  • Leong, Kristie, M.D. "Do Natural Deodorants Stop Body Odor?" April 23, 2009.
  • Shapely, Dan. "Nine natural deodorants that really work." July 30, 2009.
  • Truitt, Eliza. "No Sweat: Putting deodorants and antiperspirants to the test." Dec. 28, 2000.