A non-greasy Zero Waste deodorant to make at home

I’m not sure why my DIY deodorant actually works, but it seems to and it’s easy to make. But you might not even need it. Confused? Ummm…yeah.


There are good reasons to consider giving up conventional deodorant to start making your own, including avoiding fragrance or triclosan, reducing plastic packaging waste, and saving some money.

A brief history of deodorant

Women were the first to be body shamed into buying it in the early 1900s. Adverts of the time told women that they needed to get that pesky underarm odour under control if they hoped to snag a mate. Nevermind that it clearly hadn’t stopped humans from mating in all the human history that came before it… Women were at first outraged, then bought in big and a need was born. The same story as many personal care products! At the time, male body odour was considered completely fine, masculine even. That only changed decades later when producers hawkishly realized they were missing out on 50% of the market.

Fear of body odour is at its root, fear of rejection, and probably why many people can be hesitant to try out anything that doesn’t explicitly promise “24 hour odour protection!” or similar.

I’d tell you to go without, except that I don’t, and besides, many of us work indoors – our sensibilities might not be attuned to the smells of the pre-Victorian era. And since deodorant shames each gender in mostly equal amounts these days, let’s just look at an alternative to the conventional drug store variety, just because we can.

My tried and tested formula

Anecdotally, my homemade formula works for me, but I couldn’t help but wonder why. The internet is abound with terrible advice provided by people who have good intentions, but a poor grasp of what constitutes legitimate scientific literature. It muddies the waters to call a homemade deodorant ‘chemical free’. Chemicals are neither good nor bad by definition. It’s much more accurate to say we want to avoid chemicals proven to harm biological systems, like triclosan. Not every commercially sold deodorant contains triclosan and I’ve not seen any science that supports that widely repeated claim (from somewhere) aluminum causes breast cancer.

So why do I bother making deodorant myself? I find deconstructing ingredients and making stuff at home fun and empowering. I find unsubstantiated claims that may distract people from actual risk factors disempowering. I also like spending less on things that are super easy to make.

Anyway, having relied on my homemade deodorant for a number of years now, in climates from temperate to sometimes torturously hot, I am pleased to tell you I haven’t lost any friends. The formula is a distillation of anything and everything I’ve found on the internet over the years, combined with what I’ve picked up from workshops. And then I tried to make it as simple as possible, because I am a very big fan of that sort of thing.

In any case, it’s probably helpful to start, as I did, by getting a better grasp of the anatomy of the armpit and why it’s prone to odour in the first place.

Some interesting armpit tidbits

  • Armpits are about a pH of 4 – 6 (acidic), with women having a slightly lower pH than men, on average.
  • Sweat is one way our bodies control temperature, but not all sweat is the same – our bodies have two types of sweat glads: eccrine and apocrine. The former produces a salty solution that actually inhibits bacterial growth, the latter a more protein rich sweat, which bacteria like to feast on. Hairy body parts have more of the glands that produce protein rich sweat.
  • Smell is the result of bacteria breaking down the proteins in apocrine sweat.
  • Some people don’t produce body odour. And if you have dry earwax, you may be one of the lucky ones who doesn’t need any form of deodorant. Yup, this was determined by a study done by the NHS.
  • Salts inhibit bacterial growth.
  • Our skin is probably bacterially unbalanced, much like modern day intestines. We are probably over-washing and getting rid of good bacteria. One day we might spray on bacteria instead of deodorant to keep smell at bay. But not today.

Next I looked into the most common ingredients found in commercially available so called natural deodorants.

Common natural deodorant ingredients

Here are the ingredients you’ll find in popular, raved-about natural paste style deodorant. By law, ingredients must descend in order of concentration, which makes it simple enough to reverse engineer a recipe. They usually include the following:

  • Baking soda / bi carb is the star ingredient in most paste recipes. Baking soda is the same thing as bi carb, a type of salt. You could apply it solo, directly to your underarms. The reason many don’t is because that would be hard to apply and perhaps a bit abrasive, as well as on the high pH side at 8.5.
  • Arrowroot is moisture absorbing and has a neutral pH. I also suspect this creates a smoother consistency thanks to its thickening action. It acts a lot like cornstarch, but most cornstarch is from monocrops, and it’s also much higher pH than arrowroot, and could be irritating.
  • Clays are moisture absorbing. They can be neutral to high pH. Kaolin has a lower pH, bentonite has a very high pH.
  • Diotomaceaous earth is also alkaline, and sometimes used in place of bi carb or clay. It’s made of tiny little fossils. Actually this ingredient isn’t all that common.
  • Shea butter or cocoa butter are both moisturizing, and help form the balm base.
  • Coconut oil has antibacterial properties and helps form the balm base.
  • Beeswax hardens the mixture, which is useful for warm climates.
  • Essential oils like tea tree have antibacterial properties, and also add a bit of scent. If you’re preggers, sensitive, or a child, don’t use essential oils, and never use pure essential oils undiluted on your skin.

The best I can figure, bi-carb based deodorants work by raising the pH of the area to inhibit bacteria. The other ingredients make the paste nice to apply and also dilute the bi carb, which should theoretically bring down the pH of the formula. Why is this important? Products with a high pH can cause irritation to the skin. If you get skin irritation, you might want to reduce the bi carb or high pH ingredients in the formula. Some of the other ingredients are antibacterial.

The DIY deodorant formula I use.

Every time I make my deodorant, I make it a bit differently because I have slightly different ingredients on hand. It always turns out fine and usable because it’s a robust recipe. It’s not like soap making, which is a technical process where precision measurement of oils and lye can the difference between success and failure. DIY deodorant is melt and pour. With our basic balms and deodorant pastes, adding too much of one thing is easily corrected by adding a bit more of another.

zero waste deodorant

 

Ingredients:

  • 1TBSP cocoa butter
  • 1TBSP coconut oil
  • 1TBSP beeswax
  • 1TBSP bi carb
  • 1TBSP kaolin clay
  • 1TBSP arrowroot powder
  •  5-10 drops skin safe essential oil, like tea tree or lavender

This method uses one equal part of each ingredient (excluding essential oil), and a 50:50 overall ratio of dry ingredients to balm. Meaning, if you need to swap out the kaolin clay for 1.5 TBSP each bi carb and arrowroot. The more bi carb, the stronger the deodorant’s effectiveness, but also the potential for skin irritation.  Or you could swap the fancier 1:1:1 balm recipe for 3 parts coconut oil. Easy, right?

Step 1: Make the basic balm recipe

Start with a basic balm recipe using a 1:1:1 ratio of butter/oil/wax (this can be used on lips or cuticles or as a massage bar too). If it’s winter, decrease the beeswax by half, as I did, or altogether.

zero waste deodorant

Put the balm ingredients in a heat proof container like a mason jar and into a hot water bath until melted, then stir to mix.

Step 2: Add the dry ingredients

Combine your dry ingredients in a separate vessel. It’s a good idea to sift the bi carb or just break up any chunks. Mix this into the softened or melted basic balm mix. After it cools a little, mix in a few drops of essential oil. The mixture will firm up over the next hour or two and have a paste consistency.

zero waste deodorant

Step 3: Store and use your deodorant

I keep my deodorant in a small glass jar that formerly housed a candle. Any jar would do as long as you can reach in with your fingers, because you will need to apply the deodorant with your fingers. And why not – if you’re a lady, you should be checking your armpit regularly for lumps.

zero waste deodorant

Give it a minute to sink in before putting on clothing. If you’re getting grease stains, you could be using too much, or you may need to add more of the dry ingredients to dry out the formula for your climate and season. I use about half a pea size for each underarm. A small pea. One batch should last a few months. It’s probably worth noting that before I cracked this recipe, I used a simpler coconut oil and bi carb formula that left me feeling greasy. I much prefer what I use now, and find it worth the additional steps since I only make two batches a year. It’s also worth noting that I don’t tend to wear clingy white clothing these days. but I used to and I’d get staining from conventional deodorants anyway.

A note on Zero Waste ingredient sourcing

I used to be able to get all of the ingredients packaging free from The Soap Dispensary. Now that I live in Sydney, I can get some but not all of the ingredients packaging free. Bi carb, arrowroot powder, coconut oil and cocoa butter can be found at many of the bulk food stores I frequent. Beeswax isn’t hard to find in blocks at the farmers market or through a crop swap group. For anything I can’t easily source packaging free, my approach is to buy in larger amounts to share with friends.

12 thoughts on “A non-greasy Zero Waste deodorant to make at home

  1. The armpit factoids are fascinating. And I actually feel a little manipulated. You mean relatively modern (early 1900s) women didn’t wear deodorant? That means all the decades of my teen and adult life I have bought bottle after bottle of roll on deodorant because of strategic advertising that altered societal norms. Argh!

    Thank you for sharing your recipe. I like the idea of having it lavender scented. I enjoy lavender’s brisk perfume, and it tends to neutralize other odors (I think so anyway). In fact, I have a jar of fresh lavender sitting in the laundry room right now.

  2. I think early 1900s they were still experimenting with aluminum chloride antiperspirants, which sound awfully unpleasant. It’s a similar story with so many personal care items. That’s why I sort of think that breaking away from these narratives (if not from odour control) is so important as a step towards a less wasteful way of life. It reminds me of how I used to buy a drugstore brand of heavily marketed dry shampoo that has butane and propane as the top ingredients. It’s shocking to think so many women are using this, thinking it’s necessary, and becoming flammable in the process!

  3. Ah deodorant is top of mind, noticing my recent cardboard tube deodorant seems to be adding to more oily looking stains on the ironing I just did. But I’m not sure I’m at the level of buying and making yet – too many niche ingredients.

    Ps I met you today (Sunday) with my friend in Bondi, she was in packaging and I was nerdy about garbage!!

  4. Sarah! So good to meet you both today. What is your blog? Is your cardboard tube deo a DIY too? I think the trick is not to overdo the oil in the formulation, and also not to apply too much.

  5. Great post, so informative! I’ve been making an even simpler version of this with coconut oil, baking soda, cornstarch and essential oils. I haven’t experienced any irritation due to the baking soda and cornstarch (phew!) but I have been experiencing a yellowish stain on white tops. I’m going to try another batch shortly with arrowroot instead of cornstarch and a bit more dry than wet ingredients. I’m also going to try it with a bit of beeswax — I’m in Florida and room temperature is enough to melt my mixture, which is probably why I’m slathering on too much at once.

    1. Hi Maggie, glad you found it useful. I used to use a simpler recipe too, and had a similar experience in the heat of Sydney’s summer. I also found it made me feel slimy instead of fresh. I much prefer the drier style I make now. Beeswax should help solidify it, though I suspect sometimes the very yellow coloured wax can be a factor on tee shirt discolouration. And you are quite right, you don’t need that much. Better to use a thin layer and reapply if needed.

  6. What a fab recipe. I recently converted my other half to the natural deodorant I’ve been buying for a couple of years, and I’m so glad I came across your post (it was getting pretty expensive, he uses about half a teaspoon per go..).
    I made up a batch this evening – I used 2:1 arrowroot:bicarb as I had no clay, and added a little bit of olive oil (as we’re in chilly Scotland). The texture is just perfect! would love to try it with kaolin when I next get my hands on some.

    1. Hi Nia,

      Great job adapting this recipe to your climate! I have to do the same in the winter in Sydney. It’s hard to believe, but it gets colder indoors than out sometimes (like 14 degrees…), so the paste gets quite hard and it’s exactly right to add a bit more of the softer oil.

      Liz

  7. Thank you for this recipe plus your explanations which enable me to tweak the recipe based on what i have at home. I have just made a batch (without kaolin and beeswax). I am hoping to avoid dealing with oily patches on my clothing.

    Can you please tell me if this will work as an “anti-perspirant” because of the cornstarch? Or does it just work as a deodorant.

    Dale

    1. Hi Dale, Let me know how you go with your tweaks, especially without beeswax, which hardens the mixture a bit. This would only be a deodorant, not an antiperspirant. Liz

  8. Hi Liz. So far I am pleased with the results. I have no oily patches on my clothing and despite the temperatures being very high in Auckland at the moment the deo is solid at room temperature. All this without beeswax.
    Dale

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