How-To

How “Natural” is Natural Deodorant? Stuff to Know Before You Buy

Talia Vicars
Deodorant Blog

There’s nothing quite like leaving the house without slapping some deodorant on your pits. Let’s just say if you weren’t sweating before, you definitely are now. So, for this product that we use daily (maybe?), what do we need to know about those that label themselves “natural”? If natural is defined as “existing in nature and not made or caused by people” by the reliable Merriam-Webster dictionary, they just must be above the rest…right? Well, existing in nature is not mutually inclusive with being safe for humans or good for the planet. 

What even is natural deodorant?

If you were to check out our handy-dandy glossary, you’d see that based on Finch’s definition, “natural” isn’t useful in choosing personal care products. And, if we’re defining natural as not made or caused by people, then natural products just don’t exist – you likely won’t just stumble across a bottle of laundry detergent in the wild. Individual ingredients or materials might be natural, but that does not mean they’re synonymous with being more “sustainable” or “better for you”.

It’s no surprise that companies slap “natural” across their labeling and packaging. Sales of personal care products that don’t contain artificial fragrances and have a “natural” claim have increased 16% in the last year. If you’re on the hunt for products that are “natural”, we encourage you to ask yourself what you’re really looking for. Are you interested in purchasing a product that is minimally processed or includes the least amount of artificial ingredients possible? Are you interested in purchasing a product with a lower carbon footprint?

When it comes to deodorant, what should we look for to keep in mind human and planetary health…and the olfactory well-being of those (physically) closest to us?

Let’s first get clear on deodorant vs. antiperspirant.

We all have that friend that swears by “natural” deodorant, and boy, do they smell natural. This is because “natural” deodorants often don’t actually work to keep us from sweating, and in turn, smelling, like old gym shoes. The efficacy of “natural” deodorants vs. synthetic or man-made antiperspirants has not yet been studied, but we do know that deodorants and antiperspirants just don’t do the same job. Antiperspirants minimize sweating while deodorants aim to mask body odor. Bacteria can grow in the water and nutrients found in sweat, which is why antiperspirants are meant to stop this from happening. So, natural or not, deodorants don’t stand the test against antiperspirants for the human underarm environment, but that’s because they’re not meant to. Shucks. 

Put on your myth-busting hat and let’s take a look at the facts. 

When trying to keep in mind our own health and that of the planet, not to mention staying odor-free all day, some of these natural – and synthetic – deodorant ingredients just don’t pass the test. So, what are some key ingredients to look for in deodorant, and which are best to avoid?

Take a look at the ingredient list below and take a guess: does each ingredient belong on the yes-yes list or the no-no list?

Aluminum Salts

The Facts: Aluminum is often found in antiperspirants to reduce wetness by blocking our underarm sweat ducts and minimize body odor by inhibiting the bacteria that feed on sweat. But, aluminum has gotten a bad rap because it’s been linked to Alzheimer’s and breast cancer. Drum roll...the connection to Alzheimer’s has been discredited since the 1990s and experts (like the American Cancer Society) cite that there is no conclusive evidence to suggest a link between breast cancer and aluminum in antiperspirants. Maybe that “natural” deodorant sitting on the shelf is a crystal deodorant – a popular “natural” option – and it uses alum crystals. Surprise, surprise, alum crystals still contain aluminum. While aluminum itself is naturally occurring, the aluminum found in deodorants is aluminum chlorohydrate, a simple form of a group of FDA-recognized, synthetically-made, aluminum-based salts.

Finch Takeaway: There is no conclusive evidence linking the aluminum found in antiperspirants to cancer. However, aluminum in higher concentrations has been linked to declining neurological impacts. For example, there is evidence of aluminum welders and workers in the aluminum industry (aka those who have a lot of aluminum exposure) with declining performance in neuropsychological tests. So, if you’d rather stay clear, that’s a-okay with us. 

Dyes, Fragrances, and Phthalates 

The Facts: Let’s start with fragrances. Does anyone remember the middle school years when adolescents sprayed perfume and cologne over some serious body odor to no avail? Well… that’s not the only thing those artificial fragrances are hiding. Some synthetic musks, also known as fragrances, contain phthalates. While they are often included to give deodorants and body balms an enjoyable smell, they are also known to be hormone disruptors. Phthalates can mimic the body’s natural endocrine system that’s responsible for regulating our reproductive organs, growth, and development. This can lead to genital malformations and testicular cancer in males, and infertility in females. Whether the doses of phthalates in fragrances can cause this kind of endocrine disruption is still being researched, so for the safest alternative, we suggest going fragrance-free and keeping an eye out for phthalates. 

So, how about non-synthetic fragrances? Essential oils, botanicals, and plant extracts – while naturally occurring – can still cause skin irritation. Enter: contact dermatitis. Fragrances like linalool and limonene, fragrances extracted from citrus fruit peels, can cause allergic reactions in the armpits because the delicate skin is so sensitive. However, if your skin can handle these non-synthetic fragrances, go for it. 

When it comes to dyes (cough, cough, electric blue manly deodorants), it’s safe to bet those neon colors contain synthetic ingredients. 

And, what about planetary health? The manufacturing of dyes and fragrances uses significant amounts of water and creates wastewater pollution that can be harmful to fish and other aquatic plants and wildlife. 

Finch Takeaway: When it comes to most personal care products, we suggest steering clear of these ingredients – particularly phthalates, and synthetic dyes and fragrances. If you want some fragrance in your deodorant, go the route of essential oils, botanicals, and plant extracts – but make sure you test the stuff on a patch of skin before slathering it on your sensitive pits. 

Magnesium Hydroxide

Magnesium hydroxide is an inorganic compound, commonly found in antacids like Milk of Magnesia (which you may be familiar with if you’ve ever had tummy troubles). Magnesium hydroxide is also commonly used as a deodorant. Remember, deodorant is not synonymous with antiperspirant. However, this compound is shown to inhibit perspiration odor in humans. Magnesium hydroxide is an alternative to aluminum salts as a deodorant, but it won’t stop you from sweating in the same way.

Finch Takeaway: According to the EPA Safer Choice list, magnesium hydroxide is verified to be of low concern based on experimental and modeled data. The EPA Safer Choice list informs the EPA Safer Choice label, which indicates that the chemicals in a product have been reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency to meet strict safety criteria for both human and environmental health. That said, even though it does also look into packaging, the EPA Safer Choice label doesn’t address human rights along the supply chain, labor practices, or sourcing concerns like deforestation and biodiversity. Heck, one certification can’t do it all! All that said, at Finch, we’re in support of this ingredient in deodorants. 

So, how “natural” is natural deodorant?

TLDR: “natural” as an identifier is not useful when choosing a deodorant when it comes to health and function. Artificial fragrances and phthalates are synthetic, and we’d prefer to keep them out of our deodorant. Other fragrances may be naturally occurring, but they still may cause rashes and allergic reactions. Dermatologists do recommend fragrance-free options – artificial or otherwise. All in all, we suggest steering clear of phthalates and dyes, too.

And, when it comes to aluminum, we’ll leave that one up to you.  Aluminum is naturally occurring, and maybe you’d prefer to keep it out of your deodorant, or maybe you wouldn’t. Our lives would sure be a heck-of-a-lot easier if we could just opt for naturally occurring ingredients and rest easy. But, what is life without a little complexity? That said, you can feel good about using a product with magnesium hydroxide in it. 

What type of deodorant should you buy?

At the end of the day, every person’s body reacts differently to products like deodorant, so even products with the highest ratings may not be the best fit. When in doubt, however, check out our favorite deodorants in our Top Products list – warning: they may not be “natural.” An important disclaimer before you go: You might notice that some of these deodorants on our list have the ingredients we recommend avoiding. That’s because many major brands haven’t (yet!!) heeded our recommendations or started paying attention to the science, and because our rating system currently only works on Amazon (more retailers coming soon!). If you know of a brand or small business that makes a deodorant sans the scaries, send us an email at hey@choosefinch.com. We’d love to hear from you.

What to buy?

Install Finch’s browser extension for science-backed ratings based on environmental impacts and real reviews.