Cover image: Each & Every
It’s not uncommon for underarms to get rashy, itchy, and irritated. Even those who may not suffer from sensitive skin or eczema on other parts of their bodies may experience armpit irritation due to clogged pores, lack of airflow, toxic deodorant ingredients, and more.
So in this article, we’re going to look at what could potentially be causing your armpit irritation, what to do about it, and then give you a list of the best deodorant for sensitive skin.
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First Things First: Deodorant VS. Antiperspirant
Before we get into what to look for in deodorant for your sensitive skin, let’s do a quick primer on the difference between deodorant and antiperspirant.
Antiperspirant actually works to stop you from sweating completely. Most of the time, aluminum is the active ingredient in antiperspirant, which is used to block your pores. More on that below.
Deodorant, on the other hand, works to get rid of and cover up scents by killing odor-causing bacteria and absorbing sweat (rather than stopping it).
A product can be both, OR it can be just deodorant. Many conventional “deodorants” like Dove, Old Spice, etc., are actually antiperspirants too.
Now let’s look at a few of the reasons why your armpits may be sensitive or irritated.
Irritated Pits Culprit #1: Clogged Pores & Buildup
Over time, the pores on your armpit skin can experience a buildup not only of stuck deodorant ingredients (which we’ll talk about more in a minute) but also things like odor-causing bacteria and dead skin cells. This can lead to redness and itching, not to mention extra and unnecessary stink! Here are a few ways to get rid of and prevent buildup. You may want to combine several of these tips for the best results.
*If you have a skin condition, make sure you check with your doctor or dermatologist before doing any of these things!
Try Dry Brushing
Dry Brushing before your shower is a gentle yet effective way to exfoliate the skin and remove dead skin cells and bacteria buildup. You may want to start with dry brushing your pits once a week, then move up to two to four times per week. Starting slow, using a soft brush, and moisturizing your pits after your shower with a skin-soothing oil like this one can help to prevent potential irritation.
Use a Loofah in the Shower
Using a loofah in the shower can also help to exfoliate your skin in the same way dry brushing can. Using a loofah tends to be a gentler and more time-efficient option compared to dry brushing.
Do an Armpit Detox Mask
This is one of THE BEST ways to detox your underarm skin. If you’re just starting the transition from conventional to natural deodorant, many people recommend doing a pit mask regularly in order to help get rid of that built-up lingering stink that you’ve been covering up with your conventional deo.
You can use a pre-made charcoal mask like this one from Beautycounter, or you can easily make your own using the following ingredients (which you can get from almost any grocery store):
- 2 tsp of Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay (you can easily find this at stores like Target, Walmart, Whole Foods, and drug stores. One jar lasts a really long time!)
- 1-3 capsules of activated charcoal, broken up and mixed into the clay. You can find charcoal capsules at any pharmacy, or you can use a specially formulated carbon binder like this one from Microbe Formulas.
- 2-3 tsp of Apple Cider Vinegar. You can add more or less to get your preferred thickness. The finished product should be like a thick paste.
Mix the above ingredients together in a small bowl using a non-metal utensil. (The metal can react with the clay, making it less effective.) Smear the mask on your pits and allow it to dry. Leave it on your skin for about 20 minutes, then rinse it off in the sink or shower.
Following up with a skin-soothing oil can help too.
You may need to repeat the pit mask multiple times throughout the first month of your transition to natural deodorant. Everyone’s skin and lifestyle habits are different, so do what works for you.
After you’ve made your transition to natural deodorant, many people find it helpful to do a once-a-month pit mask for maintenance.
If you’re unsure about whether or not your skin will be able to tolerate the clay, charcoal, and ACV, you can test the mask on a less sensitive patch of skin first and see how your skin reacts.
Irritated Pits Culprit #2: Deodorant Ingredients
There are quite a few common deodorant ingredients (some synthetic, some natural) that can potentially cause skin irritation (or other issues) for many people. Here are the ones to be aware of:
These days, most people are at least somewhat familiar with the potential connection between aluminum (the active ingredient in many conventional deodorants/antiperspirants) and breast cancer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, “[Aluminum] compounds form a temporary “plug” within the sweat duct that stops the flow of sweat to the skin’s surface. Some research suggests that aluminum-containing underarm antiperspirants, which are applied frequently and left on the skin near the breast, may be absorbed by the skin and have estrogen-like (hormonal) effects (3). Because estrogen can promote the growth of breast cancer cells, some scientists have suggested that the aluminum-based compounds in antiperspirants may contribute to the development of breast cancer (3).”
It should be noted that this connection is somewhat controversial, and we need more research to be done in order to establish (or eliminate) a clear and direct link between aluminum-containing antiperspirants and breast cancer. However, considering that breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women, many consumers would rather just play it safe and skip the aluminum until we have more solid information on this issue.
The cancer issue aside, however, aluminum has also been linked to contact dermatitis, meaning this ingredient could cause skin irritation as well.
Parabens are most often used as preservatives to extend the shelf life of deodorants. They’re also known endocrine disruptors that are linked to decreased fertility and cancer. Some studies have found that parabens cause skin irritation for some people as well.
Parabens include ingredients like methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben.
This is a big allergen/irritant for many people. “Fragrance” and/or “Parfum” is a ubiquitous ingredient that’s found in sooo many consumer products. This is perhaps the sneakiest ingredient because it can actually include almost 4,000 different chemicals! Under U.S. law, manufacturers can include any of these 3,900+ chemicals (many of which are known toxins) under the “fragrance” umbrella and are NOT required to actually list those chemicals on a product’s ingredient list.
Obviously, it really helps to have deodorant that smells good, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of your health. Those with sensitive skin should look for brands that use natural ingredients for their scent, which tend to be more gentle. It should be noted, however, that even some natural fragrances (like tea tree oil, for example) can be irritating for some people. If that’s the case for you, just go for unscented!
Alcohol is used in both conventional and natural deodorants. For some people, however, alcohol can be too drying, therefore causing the skin to become dry, cracked, red, and irritated.
Polyethylene Glycol Compounds (PEG)
Similar to talc, PEG itself doesn’t have any known negative health effects. The problem, however, is in the way it’s processed. In order to make the final product, PEG goes through a process that uses ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, both of which are carcinogenic. Not only that, but ethylene oxide is also an irritant, which means this ingredient could potentially be causing you skin problems. In studies, PEG has been found to be contaminated with both of these ingredients.
This ingredient is an allergen that can irritate skin and the immune system. This ingredient does occur naturally in some essential plant oils, so it’s a bit of a confusing one. Although it’s recommended that you steer clear of the synthetic version, current research doesn’t give us a super clear indication about whether or not the chemical is also harmful when it comes from plants. MADE SAFE includes it on their Banned List, but only “when not a naturally-occurring component of whole plant oil” (meaning they deem the plant-based ingredient as safe).
TEA (Triethanolamine) and DEA (Diethanolamine)
Ingredients like dibutylphthalate (DBP), dimethylphthalate (DMP), and diethylphthalate (DEP) are commonly used phthalates. Phthalates are commonly hidden under the “fragrance” umbrella and therefore aren’t legally required to be listed on your deodorant’s ingredient list.
Yet another endocrine disruptor, triclosan is commonly found in deodorants as well because it’s “antibacterial” and “antimicrobial.” It’s also an asthmagen, is very toxic to aquatic life, and is a suspected carcinogen.
In the United States, the FDA banned triclosan for use in hand soap in 2017, but it’s still allowed in other products like deodorant, toothpaste, body wash, hand sanitizer, and dish soap (which doesn’t really make any logical sense).
Talc itself actually isn’t bad, but it’s often contaminated with asbestos, which can cause cancer and other long-term health problems.
Irritated Pits Culprit #3: Diet & Environmental Factors
There is another factor that could be causing irritated pits, excessive sweating, and/or extra smelly B.O., and that’s what you’re putting into your body.
Things like caffeine, alcohol, certain spices, and some pharmaceuticals can cause an increase in sweat production and/or can change the smell of your sweat.
Not only that, but certain foods can change your body odor. Most of us know that garlic and onions can affect the smell of our sweat, but so can red meat, fish, cruciferous vegetables, and asparagus.
You could also have increased body odor due to ammonia toxicity, which can be a result of water consumption from chloramine (which is used in many public water treatment facilities), fast food, or gut dysbiosis / small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO). To help with these issues, you may consider buying a reverse osmosis water filter and cutting out processed foods.
Lastly, there is a chance that a certain medical condition could be causing excessive sweat or body odor, so you can always check with your doctor to see if this is the case for you.
Safer (& Effective) Ingredients to Look For Instead
The ingredients below are the most common ingredients used in natural, non-toxic deodorant. Those marked with an asterisk (*) are natural ingredients that some people are still sensitive to; therefore, those with the MOST sensitive skin may want to avoid those as well.
Baking Soda*, Arrowroot Powder, & Corn Starch
These ingredients help to absorb moisture when you sweat. However, there is a small section of people who are sensitive to baking soda, which is where arrowroot and corn starch come in! There are both baking soda and baking soda-free options in the list of brands below.
(P.S. Baking soda is also known as sodium bicarbonate, so be sure to keep your eye open for that on ingredient lists!)
Coconut Oil, Avocado Oil/Butter, Shea Butter, Castor Seed Oil, Candelilla Wax, & Beeswax
These ingredients provide nourishment to your skin in order to prevent irritation, keep your skin moisturized, and provide essential vitamins and fatty acids.
Coconut oil also acts as a natural preservative and anti-bacterial, so it’s a safer replacement for toxic preservatives like parabens.
If you’re in need of a really powerful non-toxic deodorant, try something with charcoal in it. It not only absorbs moisture but is powerful in neutralizing even really stinky odors.
Some people are still sensitive to charcoal when used daily on the skin for long periods of time, so if you’re still experiencing problems with your natural deodorant, try switching to a charcoal-free one and see if it helps.
You’ll notice this ingredient in many of the non-toxic deodorant brands listed below (especially the baking soda-free versions). While it sounds a bit complicated, it’s actually just salt! It works by creating an environment on your skin that has a high pH and is hostile to bacteria growth.
You’ll find that most non-toxic deodorants for sensitive skin are scented with plant-based essential oils instead of toxic synthetic chemicals. For most people, these oils are completely safe for the skin. Some people, however, may even have sensitivities to certain essential oils (tea tree and citrus are perhaps the most common ones). For the best EXTRA-sensitive skin option, go unscented!
The 12 Best Non-Toxic and Natural Deodorants for Sensitive Skin
Below are our recommendations for the best deodorant brands for sensitive skin. There is a wide variety of scented and unscented, charcoal and no charcoal, baking soda and no baking soda. Most of these brands are unisex too, so they’re great options for every member of the family!
Attitude is one of the best brands for a wide variety of non-toxic personal care and home cleaning products. Their EWG-verified deodorants are made from ingredients like arrowroot powder, green tea, coconut oil, and more. They come in a wide variety of scents (including unscented), and they also have a baking soda-free line too. Plus, they come in plastic-free, biodegradable paper tubes—whoop!
Each & Every’s baking soda-free deodorant is also EWG-verified, indicating ingredient safety. These come in a variety of scents, from your standard Lavender & Lemon to more unconventional options like Cannabis & Green Tea, and Geranium & Snow Mushroom! And don’t worry… they have fragrance-free too.
The Beautycounter brand is often included in our non-toxic guides because they are such a trustworthy and transparent brand, on a mission to bring safer beauty, empowerment, education, and legislative change to everyday people. Their Clean Deo includes ingredients like non-GMO cornstarch to neutralize odor, and shea butter to help keep your pits hydrated, along with candelilla wax and beeswax for hydration. Plus, it’s refillable to cut down on plastic! Beautycounter’s Deo does contain baking soda.
One of the great things about Primally Pure’s non-toxic deodorants is that they come in several different variations, so you can choose what’s best for you. They have charcoal, tea tree, unscented, and various other scents (like Lavender, Geranium, and more). Everything is completely natural (no artificial anything), sourced from small family farms, and made in the USA. They use ingredients like baking soda, fair trade coconut oil, and more. The team at Primally Pure spent years researching and developing a deodorant especially for people with sensitive skin that would actually work (even after a long workout or a hot summer day!).
Earth Mama carries a line of gentle deodorants that come in scents like Bright Citrus, Calming Lavender, Ginger Fresh, and Unscented. These organic deodorants do contain baking soda, but they have actually been formulated with baking-soda-sensitive individuals in mind, so as to decrease and prevent irritation. They have also dermatologist-tested and clinically tested for irritation.
Acure’s deodorant uses a baking soda-free formula. It contains corn starch to absorb moisture and keep your sensitive skin dry. They also use coconut oil, candelilla wax, and shea butter to nourish your skin.
PiperWai makes a very effective non-toxic deodorant that uses activated charcoal to prevent and neutralize odor, along with nourishing ingredients like coconut oil, shea butter, and more. It comes in both scented and unscented versions. It should be noted that the scented version contains a few essential oils that could be irritating for some: tea tree, peppermint, clove, and citrus.
If you prefer soft-solid deodorants, you might want to check out Indie Lee’s new Energize Deodorant. It uses organic tapioca, non-GMO cornstarch, and just a little bit of baking soda along with bergamot, grapefruit, orange, and eucalyptus extracts for a fresh and energizing scent. Plus, it’s concentrated so it will last you a while!
Each and every Soapwalla product is made by hand in small batches in order to ensure the highest quality. Their deodorant uses nourishing and effective ingredients like shea butter, jojoba oil, and corn starch. Some of their formulas do contain baking soda and citrus oils.
Meow Meow Tweet’s deodorant has been a favorite among those in the eco-friendly, non-toxic living space for quite a while. They carry both baking soda and baking soda-free versions that come in an eco-conscious and easy-to-apply stick.
A favorite brand in the zero waste community, Fat & The Moon carries baking soda and baking soda-free deodorant. Not only is it free from toxins and cruelty-free, but each jar is handcrafted!
What About Native Deodorant—Is It Non-Toxic?
You’ve probably seen Native deodorant at some point; it’s a really popular “safer” deodorant that’s received a good deal of buzz with its beautiful branding, modern packaging, and prominent shelf positioning at Target. So what’s the scoop—is this brand the real deal?
Well, most of the ingredients in Native’s deodorant are considered safe, but they do have one problematic ingredient: fragrance! As we discussed above, “fragrance” is a big red flag because it could have almost 4,000 different ingredients hidden, including phthalates and other toxicants. So if you want to use Native, go for the Unscented version.
What About Dove Deodorant for Sensitive Skin?
For a deep dive into the ingredients in Dove deodorant (including their sensitive skin line), check out this article.
There are many potential culprits for sensitive pits, but the good news is that it’s not difficult to find natural, non-toxic deodorant brands that are not only gentle on sensitive skin but are also effective against body odors.
Image credits: Deena Creates, all product photos belong to respective brands