Mr. Redheaded Herbalist’s super power is an absolutely preternatural sense of smell. Like he smells things no one else in the room can. He can smell things outside the house. From inside the house. This skill comes in handy when it’s time to pick out peaches at the grocery store, but not so much when his wife is on an epic losing streak testing out homemade deodorants in search of the Holy Grail of “natural” stink stoppers.
MY superpower (oh so ironically) is the ability to render useless just about every deodorant on the market… and even a few of the antiperspirants. In my pursuit of an effective aluminum-free deodorant, I’ve spent more than I care to admit on different brands, and sadly, not one of them has been the panacea I was hoping for.
Over the years, I’ve also tried many (so, so many) recipes for homemade deodorants, including Milk of Magnesia, magnesium oil sprays and even Desitin with varying degrees of mediocre success. They just didn’t work for me, and I always gave up and reluctantly went crawling back to my commercial antiperspirant… until the injustice of being forced to use a toxic product made me angry enough to try again. Rinse and repeat.
Why make your own?
So why worry so much about finding a quote-unquote “natural” hippy-dippy deodorant?
For starters, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding antiperspirants, which typically use aluminum salts to block the ducts responsible for sweating. A good deodorant formula should effectively control odor all day while still allowing your body to produce its normal sweat levels. We’re exposed to an awful lot of toxins on a daily basis, and sweating is one of your body’s mechanisms for getting rid of them.
The jury’s still out, but all that aluminum has been linked to a number of diseases such as breast cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and dementia. And that’s just the aluminum — take a look at most any antiperspirant’s ingredient label. You’ll also find petroleum products, parabens and triclosan — an antiseptic agent and preservative that started life as a (no joke) pesticide. Due to concerns over potential health hazards, the FDA banned triclosan from antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers in 2016, but it’s still found in personal care products like toothpaste, shaving cream and deodorants, since they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the FDA.
I’m into bet hedging, so I prefer to err on the side of caution here.
Then there’s the little problem of all those lovely yellow pit stains on your favorite white shirts. I used to assume this was caused by sweat, but it’s actually a result of a chemical reaction between your sweat and the aluminum in your antiperspirant. The more you know…
My recipe is derived from a couple of my favorite aluminum-free commercial deodorants — Lavilin is zinc oxide-based and pretty effective; however, it’s pricy and contains talc and fragrance, both of which I’d rather avoid if possible. Schmidt’s Charcoal + Magnesium deodorant is based on activated charcoal and magnesium (hydroxide). As impressed as I was with Schmidt’s better-than-average stank-fighting ability, I’ve found I just do not tolerate baking soda well. Some folks tolerate baking soda in their arm pits just fine, but I am not one of them.
So aside from being nontoxic actually *working*, the main requirements I have for a homemade deodorant is that it’s fast and easy to make. I personally prefer deodorants that come in little tubs and are designed to be applied with your fingers. More often than not, it’s how I package this deodorant — I have a 1-ounce glass container of it in my bathroom and cute little 0.5-ounce jars in my gym and travel bags. But for those like my husband who prefers a more “normal” application method, try repurposing an old deodorant tube.
I won’t sugarcoat it — cleaning deodorant tubes can be a bit tedious. The most effective way I’ve found is to first dig out any old product, wiping with a paper towel to remove as much of the waxy solids as possible. If the tube is the type that has a removable platform inside the base, go ahead and remove it to make accessing all surface areas a bit easier. Then toss the nearly-clean tube parts into a pot of simmering water and let them soak for 10-15 minutes. Remove from the water and again, wipe down with a clean paper towel.
Did you know that magnesium deficiency is also associated with increased body odor? Thanks to industrial farming practices leading to soil depletion, studies suggest that most people these days are deficient in magnesium. Magnesium is essential for energy production at the cellular level and is involved in blood pressure regulation and detoxification, among other things.
My original hope was to include some form of transdermal magnesium in this recipe, since conceptually, it’s totally related to odor prevention! Magnesium chloride is considered to be the most bioavailable choice for transdermal supplementation, but since magnesium chloride is water soluble (and not oil soluble) it needs to be dissolved in water to activate it, creating what is known as magnesium oil that can soak into your skin. This could work well for a water-based roll-on recipe, but it’s problematic for this creamy formulation, since any added water causes the mixture to seize up and do its best concrete impression.
It’s possible that the magnesium chloride would still activate when it comes in contact with sweat, but I’m not certain of this — especially after it’s been mixed with oils. Plus, the salts can sting. Maybe I’m just super sensitive, but I don’t like magnesium chloride on my arm pits.
Magnesium hydroxide will not increase your magnesium status transdermally, but it is an effective antibacterial capable of neutralizing odor caused by bacteria. In suspension, magnesium hydroxide is recognizable as the over-the-counter laxative, Milk of Magnesia, which also has gained popularity as a “natural” deodorant alternative in some circles. On its own, I did not find Milk of Magnesia potent enough as a deodorant, but paired with other ingredients, I think it has value. And because magnesium hydroxide has low solubility, it does not easily sweat off, remaining on the upper layers of the skin as a barrier against odor-causing bacteria.
Desitin, on the other hand, actually wasn’t too shabby as an alternative deodorant. Turns out, there’s good reason for this. When we sweat, some of the one hundred trillion bacteria that live on our bodies transforms our sweat into smaller compounds such as sulphur containing thiols and carboxylic acids, which are responsible for the characteristic aroma of stanky armpits. The active ingredient in Desitin is zinc oxide, which apparently, has talents beyond soothing diaper rash and preventing sunburns — it’s also a killer deodorizer. Zinc binds with and neutralizes these funky smelling short-chain fatty acids, converting them into odorless zinc salts — basically stoping B.O. before it happens! One thing I learned from all my experiments, is I doubt I’ll ever bother with a deodorant that does NOT contain a generous amount zinc oxide ever again. It just works!
Note: I recommend that you always stick to non-nano zinc oxide in topical applications. Nanoparticles are usually defined as particles smaller than 100 nanometers in diameter (or 0.1 micron), which are small enough to pass through your body’s membranes. This is a good thing for antibacterial effect, (smaller particle size is associated with better antibacterial activity) but there may be hazards associated with nanoparticles passing into the bloodstream. Research on the subject is not settled, but for now, it is probably wise to minimize exposure to nanoparticles. The zinc oxide I used has a mesh size of 325 nm.
Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a naturally occurring sedimentary rock made from the fossilized shells of teensy, aquatic organisms called diatoms. With a soft, silky texture not unlike talcum powder, DE is rich in highly absorbent amorphous silicon dioxide (75-90% depending on the DE’s source). Think of those silica-gel desiccant packets used to absorb humidity and keep things dry. Diatomaceous earth’s absorbent qualities make it a great candidate for combating sweat and odors in homemade deodorant.
Note: When sourcing diatomaceous earth, it’s very important that you purchase food grade DE. Non-food grade diatomaceous earth intended for use in pools or pest control may contain added chemicals
What about waxes
I love the feel of cera belina wax, so that’s my first choice here, but beeswax will work just as well. The first iterations of this deodorant recipe did not include cetyl alcohol, but trial and error taught me that — particularly with the stick deodorant application — you really need the extra slip that cetyl alcohol provides for comfortable application. Omit at your own peril. Leave it out and we might have to rebrand this as a dual-purpose deodorant and hair removal product (ouch!)
If you read Nourishing Winter Barrier Not-Petroleum Jelly, then you’ll already know I’m a huge fan of pastured tallow in skincare. It’s a truly amazing moisturizer base, capable of combating dryness at the cellular level without clogging and suffocating your pores like petroleum-based products can. Tallow is rich in the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, which are necessary to healthy, youthful skin, as well as conjugated linolenic acid (CLA) which boasts powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Tallow is also antimicrobial and antifungal thanks to its palmitoleic acid content, which also happens to be the most active anti-microbial found in our own skin oils (aka sebum). And because tallow’s fatty acid profile is so similar to those of our own sebum, it’s quickly and easily absorbed into the skin without any greasy residue.
Antibacterial, antimicrobial and anti-fungal essential oils are a great addition to your formula, as they can help to prevent odors from forming in the first place, rather than simply masking odor with fragrance. Some essential oils are especially good at helping to control excessive sweating (aka hyperhidrosis). Sage, tea tree and palmarosa are all good choices, though I believe this recipe is effective enough to use pretty much any essential oil you fancy. I’ve been kinda obsessed with peppermint ever since my first bottle of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint castile soap and I associate it with feeling clean. ♥
So my deodorant is peppermint.
And there you have it! Go forth and conquer. *
* body odor