Do Natural Deodorants *Actually* Work During Sweaty Workouts?
We tested a handful of natural deodorants to see if they could stand up to the sweatiest of exercises
I've lived a hardly-sweaty, never-smelly life thanks to my drugstore antiperspirant. So when I heard of natural deodorants, I wondered what's so bad about my usual?
"While evidence of aluminum's (the active ingredient in antiperspirants) harm is mostly hearsay, it's certain that aluminum does block pores and some derivatives can stain clothes," says Michael Swann, M.D. and dermatologist at Swann Dermatology. You've probably heard talk about the aluminum in antiperspirants causing cancer and Alzheimer's. While researchers have found high amounts of aluminum in the brains of those who have suffered from Alzheimer's, causality hasn't been proven. But most drugstore antiperspirants only block pores by 20 to 30 percent, and unless they contain aluminum chloride, they're unlikely to stain clothes (if they do, try this Genius $1 Trick for Treating Sweat Stains).
I decided to give natural deo a go. To test their efficacy, I put a handful of natural deodorants through a week's worth of sweaty workouts: a grueling boxing workout at Overthrow, a pulse-fest at Flybarre, and a heated spin session at SoulCycle. I usually sweat a ton in cycling and boxing, so I didn't notice a significant difference in using natural deodorant. While wearing the natural deodorant during barre, however, I did notice that I had more sweat under my arms than usual. I applied immediately before each class and didn't smell bad afterwards. But after I took a shower, reapplied, and went on with my day, I had a different experience.
I found that all the natural deodorants smelled great at first swipe; I loved the scents of lavender, basil, and eucalyptus. Most natural deodorants are made of a combination of cornstarch and clay to absorb moisture, eucalyptus to combat odor-causing bacteria, and aloe to sooth skin.
However, though the intensity varied with each deodorant, no matter which one I used, I smelt progressively worse as the day wore on. Best case, I was a little more wet at the end of the day and smelled neutral. At the worst, I wreaked and didn't want to be near anyone. (See: 9 Reasons Your Sweat Smells.)
Until I tried these deodorants, I literally thought my sweat didn't stink. But I was wrong. I smelled more rancid with some deodorants on than I had without any deodorant at all.
Dr. Swann says that as more time passes, the more you sweat, and some deodorants may not be able to withstand its smell. "Deodorants, whether natural or not, work best by neutralizing some of the odors that come from sweat and oil glands. As your natural perspiration odor mixes with the odor of the deodorant, it may overcome the ability of the deodorant to mask your odor." (Science has actually pinpointed the bacteria that causes B.O.)
And the smell of sweat plus herbs was not pleasant. As the day wore on, my stink grew, and with it my self-consciousness. I wondered if people could smell me. I kept my elbows down and didn't stand closer than one foot from someone. My thoughts became irrational; though I've never high-fived anyone at work, I cursed the deodorants for robbing me of that ability. I feared bestowing the stink on anyone I talked to, thanking my lucky stars that we can't yet smell through technology.
For someone who can normally wear shirts a few times before washing them (I know I'm not the only one...), I was sad to have so many tops go to laundry after one day's wear. (Related: 11 Ways to Make Your Sweaty Workout Clothes Stink Less.)
According to Dr. Swann, the response to natural deodorants varies per person. Some need to reapply multiple times a day, and some don't. It depends on how much you sweat, and how much you're comfortable with.
Though I didn't love the natural deodorants during my week of tests, Swann says my hope for using natural deodorants is not lost. "Because deodorants don't block sweat like antiperspirants, your armpits may not be used to sweating as much until you make the switch off antiperspirants." Your body has to get used to the amount of sweat it's producing. Since the aluminum is no longer blocking sweat glands, you will sweat more than usual, but your body will eventually find an equilibrium.
"A good way to transition is to use a natural deodorant on a regular basis and, for special occasions or outfits made of an unforgiving material, such as silk, use antiperspirant," says Swann.
One of my favorite natural deodorants from the test was All Good, which has arrowroot powder that acts as an absorbant. It remained neutral throughout the day and didn't leave me feeling sweaty. Since the test, I've used it on a daily basis and saved my antiperspirant for specific tops or occasions, per Swann's suggestion.
"If you're not having any trouble on a daily basis, then you may be able to go off antiperspirants completely. Everyone is wired differently and some people sweat more than others. This can be debilitating for profuse sweaters, but if that isn't you, it will be easier to switch," Swann explains.
If your body agrees with natural deodarant (and that might take time!), go for it. If not, that's OK too-we won't judge. When it comes to protecting your armpits, you want to go with whatever will make you feel ready to offer up high fives with abandon. (Psst... This is the right way to use deodorant, because you've probably been doing it wrong.)