Natural deodorants are nothing new. Cruise the aisles of your grocery store and there’s a good chance you’ll find entire shelves of the stuff, alongside natural versions of various other personal care, home, and beauty products. Often, they’re pricier than their more conventional counterparts.The implication is that the natural products are inherently safer and purer than the so-called “unnatural” versions, which have been used for decades.But are natural deodorants really better for you than regular old Speed Stick? Here’s what experts and scientific evidence suggest.
The Difference Between Natural Deodorant and Conventional Deodorant
Before comparing natural and conventional deodorants, it’s worth pointing out that there are actually two different types of products within the deodorant category: deodorants and antiperspirants. As explained in an article in Annales de Dermatologie et de Vénéréologie in 2020, antiperspirants are formulated to prevent sweating, and they use aluminum salts as the active ingredient to do so.
Deodorants, on the other hand, don’t actually prevent sweating. Instead, they aim to mask sweat odor with fragrance plus an active antimicrobial ingredient to limit the growth of odor-causing bacteria. According to an article in the International Journal of Dermatology, the active ingredient in conventional deodorants is often triclosan, which research has shown to be a synthetic antimicrobial agent. Natural deodorants, on the other hand, typically rely on essential oils and plant extracts, which act as a fragrance and have some antimicrobial properties as well.
Most, but not all, natural deodorants are aluminum-free. But even those lines are blurred. For example, Tom’s of Maine, a brand known for selling natural products, offers a few antiperspirant products that do contain aluminum, along with its many aluminum-free deodorant offerings. Those antiperspirants don’t have “natural” on the packaging, but the fact that they’re sold by a company that markets itself as using natural ingredients could certainly confuse consumers. Plus, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), hasn’t defined the term “natural” as used in cosmetics labeling, and therefore there’s no meaningful regulation of how brands use the term or what ingredients might be in so-called “natural” products.
Are Conventional Deodorants and Antiperspirants Harmful?
“The noise around conventional deodorants dates back to the early 1990s, with an email chain letter that circulated claiming deodorants block sweating and toxin purging, and could swell lymph nodes and cause cancer,” says Jeffrey Fromowitz, MD, board-certified dermatologist and the medical director of Dermatology of Boca in Boca Raton, Florida. “To date, these risks have not been shown.”
An article published in Nature Medicine in 2004 called the email chain a hoax and pointed to a study published in 2002 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that looked at data from 1,600 women and found that deodorant use wasn’t associated with breast cancer. The Nature Medicine article also questioned the validity of two studies — one published in 2003 in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention that linked antiperspirant use and frequent underarm shaving to breast cancer, and one published in 2004 in the Journal of Applied Toxicology that showed parabens (preservatives used in cosmetic products, including deodorants, that mimic estrogen) were found in breast tumors. The first study, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), was small and poorly designed, and its findings haven’t been backed up by further research. The second study, the ACS says, found parabens in breast cancer tumors, but it did not show that these parabens caused or aided the development of the tumors or that the use of products containing parabens was linked to breast cancer.