Let’s get one thing straight: I am not a “natural deodorant” person. I am a person who notices the creep of a ripe armpit as the day wears on. If it’s not a belt-and-braces antiperspirant, I’m not interested. Besides, there’s something about it that suggests you might also live in a treehouse. And I certainly don’t.
So when I recently visited a friend and spotted a tube of Nuud vegan deodorant in her bathroom, I rolled my eyes. Yes, I knew my sprays were probably killing the planet - a 2021 study in scientific journal Elementa found that household aerosols like deodorants have overtaken cars as a source of smog polluting chemicals in the UK - but nothing else has worked. Over the years, I’ve tried roll-ons (too sticky) and those weird solid sticks (left white marks). Give me Nivea or Sure any day.
Yet, my friend and her husband were adamant about the stuff - which has a cream-like consistency, comes in a squeezy tube and promises to last for an impressive three to seven days between applications, even if you shower and do sport. It sounded too good to be true. So, of course, I bought a tube online for £12 and decided to try it for myself.
I’m not alone. The global natural deodorant market was estimated at $1.5bn in 2022 and, according to new data from Future Market Insights, is expected to double by 2030. It feeds into our growing appetite for cosmetics that don’t rely on chemicals, reduce plastic use, and have a smaller carbon footprint.
Wild, launched in 2019 by friends Freddy Ward and Charlie Bowes-Lyon, with colourful refillable cases and fragrances including salted caramel popcorn, is now the UK’s number one natural deodorant, and sold on the high street’s Holland & Barrett. Big players like Dr Hauschka, Aesop, Kiehl’s and Susanne Kauffman are getting in on the act, while cult millennial beauty brand Glossier has just launched a version earlier this year.
There are pastes, balms, creams and pumps, mostly in sustainable or recyclable packaging (though Nuud’s lid is plastic).
But does it actually work?
When I ask family, friends and the internet, the responses are confusingly varied.
“I used Wild for a few months and liked the packaging and scent,” says a friend. “But in warm weather, it didn’t feel enough and it left a residue.”
Gemma Perlin, a behavioural coach from London, is a convert. “My first month using Wild wasn’t ideal - it was May 2020 and I wasn’t going anywhere. But they said to stick with it and ever since it has been great,” she says.
One woman tells me her natural deodorant is “fine for everyday, rubbish for sport”. A few people say some brands have brought them out in a rash, another that using it cured an underarm health issue “no doctor could solve.”
So what’s going on?
The first thing to understand, the experts say, is that natural deodorants work differently to traditional antiperspirants, which block the sweat ducts in your armpits - generally using the ingredient aluminium - and contain fragrances to eliminate BO, which forms via bacteria that thrive in our skin folds and on hair follicles. The natural formulas won’t necessarily stop you from perspiring but contain ingredients, such as tapioca starch, castor oil, mineral clay and zinc oxide, to absorb sweat and minimise smells.
The majority also boast that they are “aluminium free”, something that plays into a myth around the safety of standard deodorants, says dermatologist Dr Cristina Psomadakis.
“There was concern in the 1980s and 1990s that aluminium was linked to breast cancer and Alzheimer’s. This has been completely debunked but since it caused such a stink it has stuck around,” she says. “So-called ‘clean beauty’ is very on-trend, so some companies capitalise on this [as a] marketing strategy. In reality, aluminium is one of the most natural ingredients there is.”
In fact, says consultant dermatologist Dr Hélène Menagé, it would be wrong to imagine that all the soothing-sounding stuff in natural deodorants won’t have side effects for some - indeed, Wild have introduced sensitive versions of their products, something Bowes-Lyon says are “designed specifically for those who may find bicarbonate of soda irritating, which affects a small percentage of the population.”
“There's no guarantee that using a natural deodorant isn't going to cause irritation, while aluminiums deodorants may actually have a more hydrating base,” says Dr Menagé.
“We live in a chemical world and we have to be moderate in our use. But I'm not sure we need these and I doubt they’ll be as effective. Keep an open mind, but remember that ‘natural’ doesn’t always mean safe.”
The main reason we’re having such wildly different experiences, though, is simply that no two pairs of pits are the same. Even things like whether we shave will make a difference as to whether natural deodorant works, says Dr Menagé.
“There is a big spectrum when it comes to how much we sweat and how strong our body odour is,” agrees Dr Psomadakis. “If you don't sweat much but have strong BO you may be happy with a natural deodorant, but for strong sweaters you can’t beat an aluminium formula. No one wants to be that friend who insists their natural deodorant is great when the olfactory evidence disagrees.”
Lee Kynaston, 55, who writes about male grooming and uses AKT natural deodorant, admits there’s another appeal.
“It’s beautifully designed, like a statement piece,” he says. “Shallow man that I am, I love having a tube on display in my bathroom. How often can you say that about a deodorant? They have eco-credentials, yes, but are uber-cool rather than crusty.”
When I wave my Nuud at my husband - a man who needed two shirts for our wedding - I’m met with a raised eyebrow. The next morning, I catch him post-shower and rub it into each pit before he can protest. That night, after hours in the office and having commuted on his bike, I ask what he thinks. He has completely forgotten that he’s wearing it.
I, too, am surprised at how seamless the switch has been: standing up to my strenuous freelance routine of sitting at my desk, walking to the kettle and Pilates. I keep surreptitiously sniffing my armpits, but there is no smell and I’ve gone for two days without applying more.
Emboldened, I try Wild for myself, choosing a mint and aloe scent. While it needs applying daily, like any deodorant, I find that it works as well as anything I've ever used. Both brands only begin to falter when I haven't shaved and when faced with hot Spanish weather when I take them on holiday - both things that, for me, always cause standard spray antiperspirants to fade, too. It feels quietly revolutionary… for those who can afford it.
Even though most natural formulas claim to last for longer, the initial outlay is higher, something several people tell me has put them off. Glossier’s is £18, while Susanne Kaufmann’s is £29 for 75g. Wild - also available as a subscription - costs £28 for a case and three refills.
Could that turn off Generation Z, arguably those most likely to seek sustainable products? When I ask Sofia, 14, whether she and her friends prefer natural deodorants, she sends a brisk WhatsApp message: ‘NO, who the hell would use that? Honking’.
Apparently, even the eco-generation draws the line here.
Claire’s book BFF? The Truth About Female Friendship is out now in paperback, £10.99