5 Tips for Hunting for the Perfect, Itch-free Natural Deodorant Formulation
When you type “Natural Deodorant” into Google- it’ll almost certainly autofill your search term to: “Natural Deodorant That Works”.
And just like us (before we decided to simply create our own natural deodorant recipe and offer custom natural deodorants) you may be wondering: How is it possible that so many formulations miss the mark? Or even worse, leave you with a painful, red rash that doesn’t go away for weeks, while you continue to low-key smell your pits in paranoia every 15 minutes?
There are a few reasons why finding the right Natural Deodorant formula for you takes so much trial and error (and why “Natural Deodorants That Actually Work” has been a popular blog article title for years).
Today, we’re going to tell you everything we know about Natural Deodorant- so you can start your journey with more confidence, and less itch!
Below are our Top Five Tips for Finding the Right Natural Deodorant Formula For You (without the itchy pits!).
You can also take our free quiz to get matched with your unique formula- because we know how hard it is to find "the one", we custom make Natural Deodorants just for you! Take The Quiz HERE.
1. Read the Ingredients label (Not just the “free-from” claims)
This tip seems obvious- but the truth is- many large and indie beauty brands alike have us distracted by all the bold, often scary, “free-from” claims on the front label, without taking the time to educate us on what’s actually IN the formulation.
This means that many of us don’t understand how Natural Deodorants actually work to prevent odor, control moisture and cover residual B.O.
The general confusion about natural deodorants works in favour of brands- as it means that a Natural Deodorant with the loudest “free-from” claims on the outer label could easily outsell a product with a superior formula. Your confusion as a shopper means that sales become an exercise in graphic design and, let's face it, a robust misinformation campaign.
Unfortunately, many of our customers come to us with rashes from using natural deodorant purchased from larger, commercial brands that simply had the resources to advertise their bold “free-from” claims to the most amount of customers who knew the least: a recipe for great sales!
We’re here to say: all the noise about “free-form’s” (aluminum, parabens or- our least favorite claim- “chemicals”) just distracts you from gaining a deeper understanding of the formulation principles behind Natural Deodorant. And the less you understand, the more products you’ll need to try before finding the right fit for you. (It doesn’t help that paraben's weren’t even found in deodorant’s to begin with!)
Although we aren’t chemists ourselves, we have spent months trialing competitive products and obsessively reading ingredients labels to create our flexible DIY Deodorant formulation.
Here’s what we have learnt so far: Natural Deodorant formulas are all very similar!
Turns out that there are only minor differences between the various formulations- so armed with the knowledge below, we hope you’ll be able to quickly learn about what works (and doesn’t!) for you, while avoiding the rash. (This is also why we include our unique formulation in our DIY Deodorant kits- for all you zero wasters out there on the hunt for the perfect recipe!)
Most Natural Deodorant stick’s follow the general formulation:
Ingredients: [Carrier Oil], [Absorbent Ingredient(s)], [Fatty Alcohol], [Active Ingredient], [Wax], [Butter], [Vitamin E], [Fragrance].
Once you get to know the common ingredients categories and what they do, you’ll be able to understand the principles behind a good formula before you hit that “checkout” button.
We won’t go into all of the potential ingredient categories in this blog post- but we will be deep diving into the main ingredient you should be taking note of: active ingredients. It's position may vary on the label from brand to brand- which is important (but more on that in Tip 4)
In order to find the right “active” ingredient for you- you need to understand the role they play in Natural Deodorant formulations. This leads us to Tip #2!
2. Get to know the science behind B.O
One of the biggest hurdles you’ll face on your journey to finding the right Natural Deodorant, is looking past the thousands of 5-star reviews to figure out if a natural deodorant will actually work.
To be more specific, you need to hunt down a formula that can eliminate odor without being too harsh on your skin.
You read that right: even “natural” ingredients can be harsh and irritating, even if you’re not usually plagued with sensitive skin.
So- how does Natural Deodorant even work?
Turns out, Natural Deodorant works by killing the bacteria that naturally lives in your pits!
Unlike the sweat glands elsewhere on your body, your armpits have special sweat glands- called Apocrine glands- that release a mixture of sweat and fat. The naturally occurring bacteria eats the fat found in your pit-sweat, creating odor!
The job of killing bacteria comes down to the “active” ingredients- so an understanding of Actives is key to a successful natural deodorant journey. Enter Tip #3!
3. Assess which Active Ingredient Is Being Used
So, now you understand what you’re looking for from your dream (itch-free!) Natural Deodorant Formulation: a bacteria-killing formula that isn’t **too** harsh (oh, and also goes on easily, residue-free, without staining your fave t-shirt!)
We won’t go into those finer formulation details today, but we will get into Active Ingredients, which are the main ingredient responsible for controlling odor (and the main culprits when it comes to rashes.)
Unfortunately, in order to effectively kill bacteria- and get those 5-star reviews- brands often use the harsh “natural” ingredient that consumers are already familiar with: Baking Soda. Because we already ingest it, it feels like a “safe” ingredient- especially if we are shopping from a place of fear, worried our previous products have been carcinogenic.
The problem is, including Baking Soda in a formulation will almost certainly eliminate odor for most users, but the irritation that goes along with it may take a few weeks to occur. By that time, baking-soda deo brands already have your 5-star review!
So- how does Baking Soda end up giving you a rash weeks later?
Listed as “Sodium Bicarbonate” on your ingredient label, Baking Soda’s extremely high pH does an outstanding job of killing the bacteria on your skin. But this comes at a price: risk of rashes, itchiness or irritation.
Most skincare products are generally pH balanced to avoid harsh reactions, but in this case, a high pH is a central component to any Natural Deodorant formulation.
Although your skin can quickly and easily return to it’s original pH, some Natural Deodorant formulations will sit on the surface of your skin for long periods of time, increasing the contact time with this harsh pH ingredient. Hence the rashes, itchy pits and breakouts often associated with “switching to natural”. As the high pH product begins to interact negatively with your acid mantle- the delicate balance achieved by your skin to protect you from the environment, including irritants, begins to falter.
So, in order to begin your successful hunt for the perfect natural (non-itch) deodorant stick- start by looking for the right Active ingredient. The "right" active ingredient will kill bacteria, without harming your acid mantle.
Turns out, there are some "actives" you can zero in on (and some other ingredients to look out for!) that will prevent the likelihood of the infamous pit rash.
Instead of Baking Soda (which we found to be too harsh when formulating), look for alternatives like Magnesium Hydroxide, Zinc Ricinoleate or- more recently- probiotics.
These Baking Soda alternatives are ECOCert and “natural”- with results that are just as reliable (if we don’t say so ourselves!).
Alternatively, you can look for Arrowroot powder on the label. Although not technically an “active”- Arrowroot Powder is often used in combination with stronger actives to achieve dreamy results.
(PRO DIY DEODORANT TIP: We have found that by itself, Arrowroot is not sufficient for odor control, nor is Zinc Ricinoleate without the addition of another active.)
In the case where sensitive skin is at play- you can also keep an eye out for "active" ingredients that combat sensitivities and rashes. For instance, our own Sensitive Skin formula includes Allantoin- a well known de-sensitizing agent that calms irritated skin (often found in eczema creams).
This brings us to Tip #4: Figuring out how much active- or which combination of actives- will work for you long term.
4. To avoid irritation, Determine the Percentage of Active Ingredient(s) Used
Even after bashing baking soda for the high probability it will give you a chemical burn- a tiny bit of Baking Soda- coupled with a higher percentage of Magnesium Hydroxide or Zinc Ricinoleate- may not be too irritating, depending on your skin.
In fact, many natural deodorant brands will use a combination of all of these “Active” ingredients to achieve best results for happy, itchy-pit-free customers.
This means- along with understanding WHICH “actives” are used- you also need to discern HOW MUCH active ingredient occurs in your Natural Deodorant, before you hit that “add to cart” button.
Turns out this is very easy!
Ingredients are always listed in the order in which they occur in the formulation, with the highest-percentage ingredient coming first on the ingredient list, all the way down to ingredients that occur under 1% (often fragrances and essential oils), at the very end of the ingredient list.
So, look for milder actives higher up on the ingredient list- and harsher actives closer to the end of the ingredient list. Viola! You’ve got our most valuable tip for finding the right Natural Deodorant for you: a great balance of active ingredients for maxiumum odor control and minimum itch factor.
Let's go through some examples to illustrate our point. If “Sodium Bicarbonate” is the first, second or third ingredient on the label, this could mean that Baking Soda occurs at anywhere from 15-20% (an educated guess). For a harsh ingredient, 20% Baking Soda could be too high for a first time user of Natural deodorant.
If Magnesium Hydroxide is listed as the second or third ingredient, that would be preferable, seeing as it's considered less harsh than Baking Soda. (In our own formula, our active- magnesium hydroxide- is our fifth ingredient.)
If Magnesium Hydroxide is the first active listed, and Baking Soda is somewhere at the end of the ingredient list- you’re less likely to encounter that rash, as there is a much smaller percentage of Baking Soda being used.
In our own formulation journey, we decided to start with a high percentage of the very mild Arrowroot Powder, followed by smaller percentages of Magnesium Hydroxide and Zinc Ricinoleate- which has given us and our customers great results (with zero Baking Soda required!)
Nevertheless, you may STILL encounter irritation when switching to Natural Deodorant. In the case that your existing Natural Deodorant is already Baking-Soda free (like ours is), there is another category of ingredients that may be causing irritation, redness and rashes. Enter Tip #5!
5. Consider a Fragrance-Free Natural Deodorant
Lastly, if you’re concerned about rashes and reactions as a first time user of a new brand: consider steering away from Essential Oils- or do a “smell test”.
Although naturally derived- essential oils can be another reason you’re reacting to your natural deodorant.
Think about it: essential oils are distilled from thousands of pounds of plant matter- creating a potent liquid that is largely made up of the secondary metabolites of fragrant plants. That’s a whole lot of jumbo for: you’d NEVER encounter these “natural” constituents at such a high concentration in Nature. Essential Oils, at the end of the day, are FAR from “natural”- being that they would never exist in nature.
In fact, essential oils are generally amongst the top ten most irritating ingredients that can be found in cosmetics. Although many consumers opt for Essential Oils over fragrance oils due to the fact that they are derived directly from plants (as opposed to created in a lab to be nature-identical), keep in mind that the industry is plagued by adulteration. Due to the rise in popularity of natural products, demand for these fragrant materials now far exceeds supply. This has created a very sophisticated adulteration industry, meaning that small and large brands alike sometimes purchase large quantities of essential oils which are laced with completely unknown materials and chemical compounds.
(To learn more about essential oil adulteration, watch our IGTV interview with Kenna Whitnell here.)
BUT- if you’re passionate about essential oils in your Natural Deodorant like we are- you can always do a “smell test”.
In order to keep reactions at bay, Health Canada and the FDA generally recommend usage rates of under 2%. If you find your Natural Deodorant has a very strong smell, it’s likely exceeding the safe limits for essential oils, and even more likely to cause a reaction.
So, when in doubt- use a fragrance-free Natural Deodorant formula, especially if you encounter any irritation- or use a product whose fragrance is mild, to ensure you're not overexposing your skin to these harsh natural constituents.
So there you have it folks, our Top 5 Tips for Hunting for the Perfect, Itch-free Natural Deodorant Formulation!
We make custom natural deodorant formula's just for you- because we KNOW how hard it is to find "the one". Check out our Custom Natural Deodorants!
Don’t forget that we offer flexibly formulated deodorants with our DIY Deo kits- which you can always make fragrance-free by leaving out the essential oils. Even better- only add in half!
Let us know how your search goes below- and happy hunting!
Hi, love your information and the details on formulation choices.
Wanted to add additional science context to your information about essential oils being irritating. When you think about it in the plant ecology context, it becomes clear why essential oils have a good chance of being irritating.
Secondary plant metabolites (some of which become essential oils) are costly for plants to make. They aren’t just producing them for fun. Any energy they dedicate to synthesizing (or concentrating, depending on the chemical) those chemicals, is energy they can’t use to grow and reproduce.
The purpose of many (most perhaps) of those secondary metabolites is defense. They protect against insects, some times against mammals, also some may be antifungal/antimicrobial. Some of those chemicals are also used as offense, preventing (or outright killing) other plants from colonizing an area, that are competing for scarce resources (water, sun, nutrients, space away from enemies).
Plants also make chemicals that attract beneficial organisms. Obviously fragrances, but more interesting to me are plant chemicals released in response to injury. Some plants release kairomones when they are injured. Sometimes they signal neighboring plants that they are being attacked so they can get their chemicals flowing to make the whole patch unappetizing to whatever is feeding on them. Even cooler is examples of plants that respond to the presence of certain insect eggs by releasing chemicals that attract another insect that parasitizes those eggs.
So with all of that going on, it shouldn’t be a surprise at all that plant chemicals can be irritating.
Fun (?) experiment at home to demonstrate defensive chemicals in plants (or just freak out your partner). Peel a section of cucumber (with a peeler rather than a knife). Observe it for a minute and you will see little drops of liquid come to the surface. After you see a few of them, touch the tip of your tongue to them. You will probably end up with a numb tongue tip that lasts for maybe 15 minutes. Some varieties have less of this chemical in them so it might not happen, but I haven’t had it fail me yet.
Obviously don’t do this if you are allergic to cucumbers (or any cucurbits). The chemical is there to defend against insects. And the fact that you get cucumber beetles when you grow cucumbers (or other cucurbits) is because cucumber beetles evolved in a way that made them insensitive to that chemical. There is a constant arms race between insects and plants for millennia… and it just keeps going!