Thursday, July 17, 2014

DIY deodorant testing

In the latest issue of The Dollar Stretcher, an author who goes by "Olivia W" shares her top three tips for reducing her food bill. One of them is to make as many as possible of her personal hygiene products, such as shampoo and toothpaste. She says her "biggest, simplest change" in this area was switching to plain baking soda, applied with a powder puff, as a deodorant. She considers this a "much healthier alternative to the chemicals found in commercial deodorants," as well as a money saver, and says it "works like a charm."

I found this interesting, because as it happens, I'd tried baking soda as a deodorant myself about six years ago. My primary goal at the time was not to save money, though I hoped that might be a bonus; it was to find a cruelty-free deodorant that actually worked. As I posted to the Dollar Stretcher forum at the time, "Most of the big brands use animal testing, and the few that don't (like Tom's of Maine) tend to be both expensive and not very effective. So I was wondering whether making my own deodorant at home would be a practical possibility."

Knowing that both baking soda and vinegar could be used to deodorize spaces in the home (like the fridge or the garbage pail), I wondered whether they would also work on my armpits. So I did a bit of searching online and found several suggestions for ways to use one or the other:
  • plain baking soda, applied with a damp washcloth
  • a mixture of baking soda and alcohol in a spray bottle
  • a solution of vinegar or lavender oil in a spray bottle
  • a mixture of baking soda, corn starch, olive oil, and a nice-smelling essential oil, rubbed into the skin with the fingers
In addition to these, my cohorts on the Dollar Stretcher forum came up with several suggestions:
  • cornstarch scented with essential oil, which one user found effective on her very light perspiration
  • oil of oregano, diluted with olive oil
  • strong sage tea
  • tea tree extract
  • antibacterial cream, which one user said "works very well, but it's neither frugal nor natural"
  • frequent washing
  • milk of magnesia (one user said she "had some generic...and decided to try it," and she found it "works wonderful")
  • change of diet (various users suggested giving up onions, broccoli, beef, fish, and dairy)
  • a mix of alcohol and water, with a few drops of vegetable glycerine and a drop of fragrance oil
  • hydrogen peroxide
I started working my way through these suggestions, beginning with the simplest and cheapest. Baking soda, applied with a damp washcloth, didn't work noticeably. Apple cider vinegar, applied with a cotton ball, worked better than the baking soda (and better than the $3 deodorant from Trader Joe's that I'd been using as a stopgap measure), but it couldn't eliminate all odor. I then moved on to full-strength alcohol, applied with a cotton ball; 3% hydrogen peroxide, applied the same way; and alcohol mixed with baking soda in a spray bottle. None of these had any appreciable effect. 

At this point, I'd tried all the ingredients I had ready to hand. Changing my diet seemed like a pretty complicated and uncertain way to deal with the problem, especially if it involved giving up my morning cup of cocoa. I eliminated oil of oregano from the list because a website I consulted warned against it, saying it was too irritating to the skin, even when diluted. That left two untested ingredients that were both available at my local drugstore: tea tree oil, which was $10 for one ounce, and milk of magnesia, which was $4 for a 12-ounce bottle. Not knowing whether either of these would be effective, I decided to go with the smaller investment. It seemed completely bizarre, but it was only about the same price as one tube of deodorant, and if it didn't work, we could still try it out for stomachaches.

Well, to my great surprise, it did work. A little dab of milk of magnesia, applied to the underarms with a cotton ball, actually kept odor at bay as well as most commercial deodorants. Unfortunately, it also had a side effect. When taken orally, milk of magnesia is a laxative as well as an antibiotic—and I was disconcerted to discover that it seemed to have the same effect when applied topically. I can't explain how this was possible, because I wouldn't expect the stuff to be absorbed through the skin, but after a few days, it became quite clear that the effect was real and not coincidental. So I hastily stopped using it and switched back to my stick deodorant.

At that point, I decided to call a halt to the experiment. Everything I'd already tried had been unsatisfactory in one way or another, and I'd also managed to find a brand of commercial deodorant (Mitchum) that, while not labeled as cruelty-free, was at least not listed as a brand to avoid on the Caring Consumer site. However, this story turned out to have a postscript. A couple of years ago, a friend offered me a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer that she couldn't use because the fragrance bothered her. I'm not a regular user of hand sanitizer (I prefer plain old soap and water when available), but I accepted it thinking it might come in handy for something. And spotting it one day on my dresser, I decided on a whim to try dabbing some under my arms to see how it did as a deodorant. Since the active ingredient in this stuff is alcohol, which hadn't worked for me, I wasn't expecting it to work—but to my surprise, it did. Maybe having it in the form of a gel made it stay put better on my skin, or maybe it was the type of alcohol that was different, but for whatever reason, it actually kept the odor at bay. So, given that it was both much cheaper than stick deodorant and much lighter on packaging, I decided to keep using it.

I've since found that, as a deodorant, alcohol sanitizer has its limits. For one, it's a deodorant only, not an antiperspirant—which isn't really a drawback for me, but it might be for some people. Also, it's not as strong as the Mitchum deodorant. It will keep me odor-free during light activity in moderate temperatures, but not during a vigorous workout or on a very hot day. So now I use sanitizer all through the winter, spring, and fall, and switch to commercial deodorant on the hottest days of summer and on days when I have dance practice. Eked out by hand sanitizer, which you can get at most stores for around $1 a bottle, a single tube of deodorant now lasts me six months or longer. And there's that much less non-recyclable packaging waste ending up in our trash bin. I've taken to carrying a small bottle of the sanitizer around in my purse, where I can grab it to kill odor quickly in a pinch—or even, if the need arises, to clean my hands.
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