Do natural deodorants really work? Megan Wood puts her underarms - and her peers' olfactory comforts - on the line.

Megan Wood has been looking for a good natural deodorant for some time. Photo / Supplied
Megan Wood has been looking for a good natural deodorant for some time. Photo / Supplied

The promise

More and more of us are looking for products that offer a natural alternative. When it comes to things we apply to our skin, natural deodorants are said to be gentler, contain ingredients that are familiar and don't sound like something you'd find in an evil scientist's lab. They'll use biodegradable packaging and, crucially, control body odour. Here's hoping.

The history

Deodorant wasn't commercially marketed until 1919 and the reception wasn't great: most people took offence at the idea that they might smell. But once customers accepted their smelly reality the deodorant industry grew rapidly.

The late 1920s saw the first antiperspirants using aluminium crystals to prevent sweating arrive on shelves.

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It wasn't until 1984 that the first natural deodorant, based on mineral salts, was released. Called Le Crystal Naturel, the product sold out completely the day it hit stores in the US and still has a cult following today.

Often referred to on beauty blogs as "first generation" natural deodorants, dozens of small jars with cute names started popping up three or so years ago. With buzzwords like "natural" and "cruelty free", not to mention guaranteeing "it really works", they promised a lot but didn't deliver. Thankfully, a new array of natural deodorants have hit shelves recently, with better packaging and (hopefully) better results.

The science

One of the key drivers for a switch to natural deodorants is that most traditional antiperspirants contain aluminium. But why?

It breaks down like this: Aluminium blocks sweat ducts, preventing us from sweating. Sweat itself doesn't smell but rather the moisture is a popular place for odour-causing bacteria to hang out. So, if aluminium stops us sweating it also stops us smelling, that's good, right? Not necessarily.

Aluminium has been known to cause skin irritation and it's also the culprit for those underarm stains on your favourite shirt.

On a less superficial level there is that long-lingering rumour connecting aluminium to Alzheimer's. The link between can be traced to a 1965 study where rabbits were injected with high doses of aluminium and subsequently developed "tangles" in their brains, similar to Alzheimer's sufferers.

In his paper "Is the Aluminium Hypothesis Dead?", published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Theodore I. Lidsky unequivocally debunked those rabbits.

"Subsequent work," surmised Lidsky, "showed that the similarities between aluminium-induced tangles and those of AD (Alzheimer's disease) were more apparent than real."

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It's also important to note that natural deodorants are not antiperspirants. Rather they focus on controlling odour-causing bacteria by using ingredients that have a natural antibacterial affect, like coconut oil and essential oils like tea tree.

The reality

When a box of Aotearoad natural deodorants arrived in the office a few months ago I was intrigued. I've been looking for a natural deodorant for a while and hadn't given up hope that I'd eventually find one that works.

The first hint that this one might be different was the huge improvement in packaging design. A clever cardboard tube allows you to push up the round, solid deodorant stick for easy application. The second thing that struck me was the smell: rose + vanilla was an instant favourite but I also liked that there were gender-neutral fragrances like zesty bergamot + lime. A glance at the ingredients revealed the presence of tapioca and bicarb soda for moisture absorption, coconut oil for antibacterial properties and essential oils like vanilla and rose geranium. Natural = tick. Packaging = tick. Nice scent = tick. Time to put it to work.

Megan Wood tried the natural deodorant range from Aotearoad. Photo / Supplied
Megan Wood tried the natural deodorant range from Aotearoad. Photo / Supplied

I put the rose and vanilla deodorant on and went to work. When I got home I asked my husband to sniff my underarm (totally normal request and I stand by it) which he did – reluctantly - and remarked "I can't smell anything". It was the end of a long workday and I didn't smell, at all. The next day I performed a more vigorous test: the gym. I did my reps, got sweaty, then grabbed my bag and headed to the showers. Being careful to make sure no one saw me I raised my arm above my head and took a sniff. Nothing. I sniffed again. No smell at all.

The verdict

I have finally found a natural deodorant that works for my body. This road test taught me finding the right natural deodorant is a bit like finding a life partner, you are probably going to have to put up with some disappointment and heartbreak until you find your match.