From Madison Avenue’s point of view, I’m a very poor consumer: I don’t use much in the way of fancy skin-care products or cosmetics. I’ve been brushing my teeth with plain baking soda for 30 years (look, Ma, another perfect checkup!), and when I feel the need to rinse out my mouth with something other than water, a tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide in a small glass of water (mixed up fresh each time) does the trick. A few years ago, I replaced my shampoo with a simple, inexpensive recipe using ingredients from my pantry, and I use natural bar soap made by a local crafter with real essential oils (I could make my own, but I’m happy supporting my local crafter). I dilute natural dishwashing liquid (I use Ecover) for homemade hand soap.
Why? Premade products cost way too much, I have better things to do with my time than fuss with them, and most are full of mysterious ingredients that may or may not be bad for my long-term health (a good place to check what’s in personal-care products and why you might rather not smear them on your body is Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetic-safety database).
But despite all that, antiperspirant, lip balms, and hand and body lotion remain on my list of regularly or occasionally used personal-care products. Since antiperspirant was the one I used the most often, I finally decided last spring that the time had come to toss my effective but truly nasty antiperspirant stick, which contained things like paraben preservatives, synthetic fragrance, assorted synthetic petrochemicals, and the antibacterial triclosan, and find a natural underarm deodorant product that worked for me.
I knew I’d have to give up on antiperspirants (which block perspiration) and settle for a deodorant, as common antiperspirants rely on aluminum compounds, known to cause neurological problems, to swell your sweat glands shut. Luckily, sweat itself does not smell. Body odor comes from the bacteria that feast on your sweat; inhibit the bacteria and you will stay shower-fresh all day. Most people do not perspire all that much during routine activities, anyway, especially after their sweat glands have rid themselves of the toxins in commercial antiperspirants and deodorants (this last is key to remember as you make the transition from chemical-laden products to simple, natural ones; as the first few days you may sweat a bit more before your body settles down).
Health-food stores sell an assortment of natural deodorants. You’ll see they often contain baking soda, tea tree or other natural essential oils, or potassium alum (a natural mineral that has nothing to do with aluminum, despite the name overlap). [Correction: Potassium alum is an aluminum salt, but it does not have the same health effects as the aluminum compounds, such as aluminum chloride, used in conventional antiperspirants, according to the Environmental Working Group.] All are quite effective natural bacteria inhibitors, and the oils add a pleasant—and safe—aroma (unlike synthetic fragrance). One product you may see is a natural hunk of crystallized potassium alum. I have one and find it quite effective: Simply moisten it slightly and rub it over your pits, and it works. (Just remember to give yourself a few days to adjust to it.)