Monday, January 9, 2012

Experiment #8: The Pit(s) of Despair (Homemade Deodorant)

My very own homemade deodorant (in a Tom's container)!
So, I was going to post on my recently awesome success with making homemade yogurt, but as I continue to receive an ever growing number of requests to share my homemade deodorant recipe, I thought I'd start the New Year out with a bang (or blast)...of sweet smelling Kristin pits.

The story begins in the summer. Back when it was hot and I was very, very sweaty. So I have peppered this post with pictures from warmer times (rather than pictures of my sweaty pits). 
Thanks to Nick for several of these pictures.

The Pit(s) of Despair
I LOVE The Princess Bride. As I was constructing my post in my head while rocking Madeline to sleep last night, I was thinking about how funny the word "pit" sounded to use as a term for underneath the arms, and the scene in the Pit of Despair from The Princess Bride popped into my head. I thought it was an apt analogy for my own journey from despair to pit bliss.

To recap for those who may have missed this 1987 wonder: The Pit of Despair is a secret place where, about halfway through the movie, the hero, Wesley, finds himself. In the Pit of Despair, the evil Count keeps The Machine, an instrument of torture he created to help him write his "definitive work on pain." The Machine "sucks away life" one year at a time until there is no life left. It seems, at the moment, that the only way out for Wesley is to endure the torture of the machine until all his life is sucked away.

Now, for those of you who know me, and know me well, you will have observed several things:

  1. I do not glisten. I sweat. I sweat sitting. I sweat standing. I look like I have already showered after returning from a light jog or brisk walk
  2. Due to #1, I hover around the stinky end of the spectrum.
  3. I have an incredibly sensitive sense of smell. Consequently, the tiniest shift toward nasty in my body odor makes me feel like I smell like my brother's hockey bag at the end of his season.
  4. As might be expected, I am obsessively paranoid at all times that I stink. I sniff my pits probably once per waking hour. 
  5. Due to my meticulous observations on the changes in my smell throughout the day, it was not uncommon for me to reapply antiperspirant/deodorant 3 or 4 times a day.

Much like Wesley in the Pit of Despair, I thought I was stuck with my nasty, stinky, sweaty pits until the day I died, needing to simply endure the suffering. I tried every single kind of antiperspirant and deodorant on the market, including a run with a prescription antiperspirant that only succeeded in giving me the worst rash under my arms I had ever experienced.

Then one day, about 6 months ago, I came across this post on The Kid-Friendly Home blog that talked about Crystal natural deodorant. Aluminum antiperspirant and potential cancer risk? (Ok, so this is old news to most of the rest of the world). I thought I'd do some more research. I read another post with more information on potentially harmful stuff in commercial antiperspirants on Simple Organic. But no citations on studies (here the skeptic public health professional in me was screaming).

Then I read something somewhere (I cannot remember where) that made me stop what I was doing and wash my pits. The author mentioned why she quit using commercial antiperspirants and it had to do with wandering little baby hands that manage to ALWAYS find their way into armpits while nursing. Then those same hands wander into mouths. And whether or not aluminum causes cancer, I doubt antiperspirants are considered part of a balanced diet for infants.

For those of you interested, I did conduct a decidedly non-thorough PubMed search on aluminum. I found some interesting results, but there is no conclusive evidence that using an antiperspirant causes breast cancer (in the epidemiological world, claiming causation is a statement of enormous gravity that requires decades of supporting research). But there were some incriminating sounding studies. You can check the bottom of this post, if you are so inclined, for some links to peer reviewed publications I found.

My conclusion: If there is a potentially nasty risk to using it (even if it ultimately proves to be untrue) and I can use something else that is equally (or more!) effective and cheaper (!!), then I'm going to err on the safe (and thrifty) side. Why risk it?

But "natural" deodorants you can buy in the store did NOT work for me. With Crystal, I sweat up a storm and it would only work for a maximum of 6 hours at a time. Plus, your armpits must be clean before application. Not very helpful for one who can't always shower every day. Tom's deodorant would work for 2 hours, max. I had a very embarrassing 4 hour visit to Nora's allergy/pulmonary doctor where I had to sit with my arms plastered to my sides. And eventually, they just left the exam room door open during the exam. Ugh.

It has now been over 5 months since I have used commercial antiperspirant or deodorant of any kind. Much of this time, I could actually eat my deodorant if I found myself starving. And guess what? I stink less, even in the summer with heat indices well past 100. I use less. I might even say I sweat the same, or less.  I am in love with this stuff.

The Journey
Google "homemade deodorant" and you come up with a dizzying array of claims and recipes. Consequently, the path out of the Pit of Despair was not immediate or straightforward. In fact, much like Wesley, it included some very painful (embarrassingly stinky) days. But over a series of failed attempts and less than perfect concoctions, I made it out and survived.

Attempt #1: Natural deodorants. Colossal failure. Enough said.

Attempt #2: Apple Cider Vinegar. I read somewhere that a sheep farmer in Australia swore by it. I had some in the cupboard, so I thought I'd try it. It worked AMAZINGLY for 10 days during some of the hottest days of July and even took away stink. But then, all of a sudden, it stopped working. Stinky, stinky. Plus it stung going on after shaving. And I smelled like a pickle.

Attempt #3: Baking Soda and Cornstarch powder mixture. After finding this website, I thought I try her first steps (she does mention that a natural deodorant company emailed her to tell her that cornstarch can contain chemicals and alum salts from the soil, but I haven't found anything else substantiating that and I'd imagine using organic would help with that problem). It worked great (!) but made a HUGE mess putting it on. This lasted all of 3 days.

Attempt #4: Baking Soda, Cornstarch and Vaseline. So the aforementioned website suggested using coconut oil to mix up into the cornstarch and baking soda to make it less of a powdery mess. But it was summer and we rarely use A/C so the temperature in our house regularly hovers above 80 degrees. Coconut oil becomes liquid at around 76 degrees. I wasn't too keen on slopping soup on my pits and didn't really want to buy something I wasn't sure I'd use. I had a jar of Vaseline that I'd been wanting to get rid of so we could switch to something petroleum free. So I dumped equal parts baking soda and cornstarch (2 tbsp each) into about 2 tbsp of Vaseline. Admittedly it was still not something I'd like my baby ingesting, but I figured it was better than the alternative. It worked like magic! It worked all day. I could put it on stinky (like post run) and 10 minutes later, the stink was gone. I used it for a month.
Problems: The baking soda/cornstarch mixture was gritty and beaded/flaked off leaving dandruffy looking nastiness on my clothes. Not great in the summer. Also while Vaseline comes off fairly well in the wash, I started noticing a distinct "Vaseline" smell to my clothes after a couple weeks. And started seeing some staining that required several rounds of washing to remove.

Attempt #5: Sophisticated mixture of coconut oil, beeswax, cornstarch and baking soda (+optional essential oil). I then happened upon this fantastic post on the Crunchy Betty blog. It has a spectacular-looking recipe if you want to go luxurious and without baking soda/cornstarch (if you find it irritating). I haven't tried it exactly since several of the ingredients are not in my possession and expensive. So I modified it. It is GLORIOUS. Glorious. It's not gritty. It feels beautiful going on. It moisturizes. It's easy to make. No arm pit dandruff. No stinging. Black dress safe. I use it only once a day. And I find that as the months have gone on, I have to use less and less of it (fewer swipes across the pits in the morning). We'll see if the trend continues once the weather warms.

The Recipe
Time to Completion: 30 minutes (active) plus 15-30 minutes cooling.
Partially kid-friendly with supervision during the heating and pouring part.

Cost Comparision:
Commercial: Runs the gamut, but mine trend toward expensive: approx $4 - $6 per stick.

Homemade: Approx $2 per stick  
(One recipe costs about $4 but makes enough to fill 2 commercial size containers - I find the recipe is enough to last me about 3 months or 6 weeks if you split it between two people).


  • 4 tsp Baking Soda: $0.02 (4tsp - approx 1/2 oz - at $0.04/ounce in bulk)
    4 tsp Cornstarch: $0.09 (4tsp - approx 1/2 oz. My 16 oz container was $3)
  • 4 Tbsp Coconut Oil:  $3.24 (4 tbsp - approx 6 oz. I got two 15oz containers of organic extra virgin coconut oil for $16.20 on Amazon)
  • 2 tbsp packed, grated Beeswax: $0.63 (2 tbsp - approx 1 oz) - Mine was a free gift from Emily, but you can get 1lb for $10 from them or organic beeswax for slightly more on Amazon or in craft stores
  • 10 - 15 drops Lavender (or other) essential oil (optional): Maybe $0.05? (I used 10 - 15 drops). A small bottle costs $10, but it's very potent and lasts forever.
  • Small glass jar
  • Saucepan or pot
  • Water
  • Old fork you don't care about
  • Measuring spoons
  • Oven mits/hot pad holders 
  • Stove top burners
  • 1 or 2 old deodorant container - cleaned very well

Make your deodorant like this!!
First, a bit of advice. Though many of the pictures here show me making this directly in a pan, make sure to make this in a glass jar,  double boiler style, NOT in your saucepan with your best whisk. Use a fork you don't care about that you can keep using over and over when you make it. Once it's been melted together, this mixture is REALLY REALLY hard (if not impossible) to clean off cooking utensils. I learned this the hard way after finally getting everything off after 2 hours of washing, rinsing, scrubbing and several runs through the dishwasher. I just keep all my deodorant making utensils in a plastic bag in the closet for when I need to use them again. 

IMPORTANT: Make sure to keep this over low heat as beeswax is flammable at high heat (hence awesomeness as a candle). There shouldn't be a problem if you use my suggested double boiler-type contraption.

Coconut oil and beeswax before melting
1. Place a glass jar into a saucepan or cooking pot. Fill the cooking pot with enough water so the jar is not floating.

2. Measure out the beeswax and coconut oil and put into the glass jar. (NOTE: You can add the baking soda and cornstarch here - I've done it and it works just fine)

3. Put saucepan/pot on burner on low/med-low heat.

4. Watch carefully as it melts and stir regularly. The liquid should become transparent. Wait until all the beeswax is melted (it takes a LOT longer than the coconut oil - maybe 15 min)
Oil and wax, totally melted

5. Stir in the baking soda and cornstarch if you haven't already. I stir it on heat for just 1-2 minutes.

6. Remove pan/pot from heat and stir in the essential oil (optional). NOTE: When hot, the coconut smell is pretty strong and the essential oil smell seems masked. The essential oil will smell much stronger when the mixture cools.

7. Take the jar out of the saucepan/pot. Let it sit for a minute or two.

8. Make sure the deodorant container(s) is rolled all the way down and pour the liquid into the deodorant(s) container until just shy of the top. Let it sit for a few minutes before moving it to the fridge (you can leave it out, it just sets up faster this way). Don't put the top on until it's completely cool.

9. If you just use one deodorant container (as I did the first time), you can store the extra deodorant in the glass jar and then when your deodorant runs out, you can reheat the deodorant in the glass jar, in the saucepan/pot filled with water until it's just melted to refill.

Why it Works (according to Kristin)

So, if you remember from my shampoo post, our body oozes all kinds of stuff, most of which is acidic. Our pit sweat, in particular, is acidic and fatty and apparently especially yummy food for bacteria on our skin. When the bacteria break down the sweat, it creates an odor (Mayo Clinic has a great, detailed explanation here). Here's how this deodorant helps fend off that oh-so-pleasant-odor:

Baking Soda: So this is mostly pure hypothesis. As I explained in my shampoo post, baking soda acts to neutralize acids really well. Pit sweat is acidic. But body secretions are acidic to help kill odor-causing this one stumped me. But even alone baking soda works to prevent and get rid of stink once it's there. So perhaps neutralizing the sweaty acid also affects the chemical composition of the sweat enough to make it unusable to bacteria? Or perhaps the stinky byproduct of sweat breakdown is acidic and the baking soda neutralizes it and eliminates odor (fatty acids that cause the stench in rancid dairy products are neutralized and eliminated with baking soda - Wolke, p. 369).

Cornstarch: According to multiple sources, cornstarch absorbs moisture. This still allows your body to sweat (which is actually healthy for removing toxins and for cooling purposes), but keeps it from getting out of control. It's not gonna keep you completely dry, but I haven't noticed any difference personally.

Coconut Oil: The most expensive part of this, but also incredibly important. Aside from being an excellent natural moisturizer, it has natural antibacterial properties. Obviously, this will help kill the bacteria that cause odor in the first place. Plus, the light smell makes you feel like you are at a tropical beach. If you are hesitant to get something rather pricey just for this purpose, extra virgin coconut oil is apparently great for cooking and all sorts of other things; here's a link to a ton of other ways you can use it.

Beeswax: Adds some moisture/smoothness and with Owen and Emily's beeswax, there was a little honey residue (such a lovely smell!) that has antibacterial properties. The biggest use for this is that it stabilizes the coconut oil so that it has a higher melting point and won't turn liquid during those summer months when our A/C is taking a break.

Out of the Pit of Despair
Now Nick HATES The Princess Bride with a fervor nearly equaling my love. In fact, when I proposed the idea of watching it last night, his upper lip involuntarily twitched into a grimace. I do have a completely unfounded hunch that if he were to watch it again with a more mature brain and open mind, the satire, subtle wit and clever banter would win him over (I will report on the results when I can convince him to watch it again).

Much like his feelings toward The Princess Bride (albeit much less viscerally negative), Nick was really hesitant to try the deodorant while he had to be around people in a professional setting (ie. while seeing clients in clinic, working in labs and sitting in class). But since I wasn't willing to go months without shaving my pits to see how it would work on the hairy folk, I requested he try it during his month long winter break from school. If he stunk, he'd be stinking around family. He was also rather worried he'd smell like spring break in Cancun. Low and behold, he LOVES it. I put in some drops of sandalwood essential oil, but it didn't really do anything (it's not very concentrated), and he still doesn't feel like a beach party. Result: It appears to work equally well regardless of your armpit shaving habits.

So I have trudged my way out of stinky despair and have found myself with blissfully smelling pits - and unlike Wesley, I didn't have to become "mostly dead" to get out. As an added bonus, I get an unobtrusive, inadvertent perfume. Much to Nick's dismay, I cannot wear perfume (headaches and two kids with asthma), but he loves the smell of lavender. Where once a nose would nary attempt to venture, there is now a near magnetic pull. I sometimes have to ask him to please take his nose out of my pits.

A few closing thoughts:
  1. I have not had any problems with grease stains from the oil. In fact, I think it's easier on my clothes than commercial deodorant. However, I have found the most effective way to use it is to put it on right after a shower, or right away in the morning and let it "soak in" for 10 minutes while you finish getting ready before putting on a shirt. I've put it on with clothes already on, but you do get the oil on your shirts then (I haven't had problems getting it out, though). 
  2. I have found I need to use about half the amount of commercial deodorant. In fact, once I figured this out, I suddenly was getting a lot less on my clothing!
  3. Expect to be a little damper under the arms than you are used to at first. I feel like my body has adjusted now and is producing less dampness (although we'll see once we hit summer).
  4. Without essential oil (and even a little with) there is a pleasant, light coconut smell to both the deodorant and you. I find the smell goes away almost completely (unless you dig your nose under your arm so it is directly touching your pits) very quickly.
My Super Quick Research
Some tidbits for the interested (I'm just linking to the PubMed page - you may not be able to get the full article without a school or library subscription):

To end, I want to say that my goal for 2012 (note that I am not saying resolution - I am stealing that from my soon-to-be-ultra-marathon-running pal, Katie) will be to write one post each week. That's what I want my goal to be. But I am trying to learn from the past 31 years of my life and understand that my first goal is ALWAYS going to be too ambitious. So I'm paring down to twice per month (with a teeny hope that I can prove myself wrong). I'm writing this down and publishing it so that there is some degree of accountability. So far, so good.


  1. As I've said before. I love reading your posts! They are always so well put together, and I love the way you write. I am a little disappointed, though, in your husband -- clearly he does not know that "twue wove is what bwings us...togethou." He needs to get with it. Ha!

  2. I pinned this to my Pinterest! I'm going to make this when my Ban runs out!!! (Except I need a used deodorant stick!)

  3. I have now used this recipe twice and I love it! It works better than anything else I have tried. Thanks for your experimenting and keep blogging!