Should we be using natural deodorants? What you need to know about aluminium-free alternatives

Is demonising your average antiperspirant really justified?

With more people home more than ever, the pressure to keep up appearances with the outward world has been dialled down. After all, colleagues have probably seen each other in their pyjamas at this point. As it's not yet possible to catch a whiff of woke-up-late over Zoom (although we wouldn't rule it out as an update), now would be the ideal time to experiment with your daily routine – particularly in the deodorant department.

Natural deos – an unregulated definition that's become the umbrella term for aluminium-free, organic, plant-based formulas – are shouldering their way to the front of beauty shelves like never before.

A report by Future Market Insights forecast in June 2019 that the global aluminium-free deodorant industry is estimated to grow by nearly 10 per cent over the next decade, while market research company Mintel followed with a survey last March saying "the natural movement continues to shape the antiperspirant and deodorant category".

If you have caught a beauty article headline with the word "aluminium" in it over the past two decades, you could hazard a guess as to what's propelling the shift.

The anti-antiperspirant movement

"I switched at the end of last year after I read about links between cosmetics and horrible health complaints," says Francesca, one of the dozens of natural deodorant converts who spoke to The National about ditching antiperspirants.

Jasmin says: "The science seems compelling now," while Janey stopped using them "as soon as I realised the cocktail of potentially toxic ingredients they contain". The Mintel report concurs that consumer changes have been down to "perceptions of increased safety".

Image of a young brunette woman, browsing through the shelves of a Bangkok shopping mall, looking for natural cosmetics.

The demonisation began when scientific research in the noughties and 2010s from Keele and other universities showed that aluminium – used in antiperspirants to temporarily stop sweating by plugging up sweat glands – is present in the brains of those suffering from Alzheimer's disease and cancerous breast tissue.

For many, therein lay the irrefutable evidence, and war was declared against your average Boots-bought antiperspirant, which is applied very close to the breast, after all.

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I am alarmed at the ingredients that are legally used in personal care products targeted at female consumers

Big-brand deodorants – which, by default, do not contain aluminium, as they merely work to mask body odour ­– were not left off the hook, either. Chemicals such as parabens, sulphates and triclosan still left eyebrows hitched high with suspicion.

Instead, natural alternatives, such as Wild, Salt of the Earth and Routine, are winning favour. Each brand has its own approach, but generally all opt for ingredients users can read and recognise – coconut, natural salts, essential oils – that work to neutralise bacteria apparent in sweat, and thereby mask unpleasant odours.

“What you put into your body is absorbed by the bloodstream. That is reason enough to be responsible for what product you are using,” says Anisha Oberoi, founder and chief executive of clean beauty e-commerce website Secret Skin.

The clean-living movement

After surviving breast cancer and adopting a more natural beauty and hygiene routine, Oberoi traded in her corporate job with a tech giant to launch her own business. “Clean beauty starts with basic necessities,” she says. Now, delivering quality natural hygiene essentials is part of her mission in the UAE. “I am alarmed at the ingredients that are legally used in personal-­care products targeted at female consumers.”

anisha oberoi

Her own journey into clean beauty has been a necessary one, but she is not alone in her choice to ditch conventional, chemical-laced products. Despite the headline-worthy research being decades in the making, it's the "clean living" movement as a whole that has carried alternative deodorants into the mainstream.

A marketing manager at Routine says the brand saw a sharp spike in sales five years ago. As Javed Hingora, founder, medical director and homeopathy practitioner at Dubai Homeopathy Health Centre, puts it: "There is a growing trend across the world to minimise the use of chemicals and artificial means to achieve the desired benefits." 

The abolish-aluminium movement

So, should we all be sold on the science and make the switch?

Family medicine specialist at Medcare, Dr Shaza Mohammed, says: "These claims [links to breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease] were not supported by any scientific evidence as no links were identified between the use of aluminium and the development of breast cancer, and no studies to date have confirmed any substantial adverse effects that could contribute to increased breast cancer risks."

A study by BMC Cancer medical journal showed aluminium is found in healthy breast tissue at the same rate as cancerous tissue, while another published on the Alzheimer's Society website demonstrated that those who worked around aluminium did not develop Alzheimer's disease at a greater rate than others.

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I opt for natural deodorants because they are healthier, and they protect the environment

Mohammed says those with kidney issues should be wary, however. "The presence of aluminium in antiperspirants might be of greater concern as excess aluminium is usually filtered out of your body via your kidneys, hence those with weakened kidneys can't filter it fast enough."

Despite the lack of hard evidence, many in the health, beauty and wellness industry are still sceptical. Hingora says: "The biggest risk is going against our natural body processes. Perspiration is aimed at regulating temperature and detoxifying the body. If any attempt is made to stop this process, it inevitably leads to imbalance." 

The eco-friendly movement

If you're not convinced by the science either way, it's hard to argue with the environmental benefits. Ali says it was "ultimately the issue of waste plastics" that pushed her to make the change five years ago, while Janey says: "I'm trying to decrease my carbon footprint, and a lot of the more natural deodorants seem to be made with more sustainable packaging."

This is something Doua Benhida, founder of The Zero Waste Collective, believes should be at the heart of our toiletry choices. Having spent the past decade educating people about the importance of a zero-waste lifestyle, Benhida says: “I opt for natural deodorants because they are healthier, and they protect the environment.”

Many health-conscious brands also take on an environmentally friendly approach, such as glass packaging or refillable bottles.

When it comes to your drugstore options, Benhida insists there is "nothing eco-friendly about a single-use plastic bottle", regardless of how much greenwashing the marketing pushes.

Plus, natural alternatives will stick around on your shelf for much longer. "If you choose a crystal type, they can last for a couple of years," Janey says, admitting, however, that embarking on a natural deodorant journey is a trial-and-error process that requires some patience.

“Most people have unrealistic expectations changing from a strong-fragranced chemical deo and expecting to smell sweet. You need to allow some time to adjust.”

Once you find one – Salt and The Earth, in her case – Janey says there's absolutely no looking back.