I'll Try Anything Once: DIY Deodorant

Chemical deodorant allows us to feel like superior beings -- like people who have the power to transcend our grody natures. It's a smidge of enlightenment packaged in a plastic tube.
Publish date:
September 23, 2011
healthy, deodorant, body odor

No matter how tropical the weather conditions get during the NYC summer, people on the MTA trains just don't smell all that bad. On the streets, there are daily wafts of baking garbage (which mysteriously and consistently smell like fish on the block of Lafayette Street between Great Jones Street and Astor Place), and there are exhaust fumes that cling to beads of humidity in the air, but underarm funk on crowded rush hour 4 trains is surprisingly scarce.

Deodorant gives us one unique power: That is the power to be more than human. It's against nature not to smell on a hot day (much like the way that it's nearly impossible to never get bad breath, to never feel angry or to never want to stay in bed all day eating string cheese).

Chemical deodorant allows us to feel like superior beings -- like people who have the power to transcend our grody natures. It's a smidge of enlightenment packaged in a plastic tube.

And nobody wants to be the smelly gal. Thus, I wear deodorant dutifully. Still, (mostly) scientific claims from the health-food-eating Left about the risks of breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease from using aluminum-based deodorants have had me trying out natural deodorants for years.

I've yet to find one that works, so I've entered a cycle of denial where every single day I use my regular, aluminum-based deodorant and promise myself that tomorrow I won't use it.

"I just can't smell today," I say to myself, as if I were a caffeine addict rationalizing her next cup of coffee. Since I've given up on spending another five dollars on pre-fabricated natural deodorant sticks that actually make me smell worse, I looked into homemade versions that would only cost me chump change if they didn't work.

Knowing that the results might stink (har), I didn't bother with recipes that involved melting beeswax and sterilizing old deodorant stick canisters. The point was to save money, not to spend time and dollars on elaborate DIY projects that likely would result in a lump of greasy homemade lotion that would leave me smelling like the parking lot of a Phish show.

I tested three on full work days with hour-long commutes between Brooklyn and Manhattan. I can't claim that these homemade deodorants will react the same way with everyone's chemistry, but here's how they worked for me. (By "me," I mean someone who bathes daily and who stays away from pungent and fried foods.)

Deodorant #1: Cornstarch and Peppermint Oil

I was hopeful for this deodorant recipe, because I found it in "How It All Vegan," a cookbook that has yet to fail me. Aside: I'm not vegan, but I respect their cookbooks. Here's why: Have you ever gotten a craving for pancakes but didn't have eggs in the house? That's when vegan cookbooks are amazing.

But have you ever noticed how vegans are uppity about their bodily odors? One vegan I know actually asserted that her poop was odorless. I'll never know if her assessment was accurate, since I didn't follow her into the bathroom to check.

Another vegan lectured me on the proper way to do a water wipe, and claimed that he had "the cleanest butt in Colorado." Anyway, the vegan deodorant was an utter failure. Maybe if I were vegan, I wouldn't need deodorant, because I wouldn't think I smell.

I followed the recipe for "Deodorant Dusting Powder" exactly: I put ½ cup of cornstarch and 5 drops of my "favorite essential oil" (the only one I had in the house was a year-old vial of peppermint oil) in a container. I shook the ingredients in the container and liberally dusted my pits with it. Within two hours, my sniff tests detected a faint odor. By mid-day, I smelled like I had not worn deodorant at all.

Just to be fair, I reapplied it the next morning to find out if it would absorb body odor. It didn't. I smelled. I threw out the remaining cornstarch mixture, because I was not about to thicken a sauce with peppermint-scented cornstarch that had indirect contact with my armpits.

Deodorant #2: Straight Baking Soda

I got the "recipe" (if it can be called that) from Arm & Hammer's website. They suggest liberally dusting one's pits with straight baking soda, and that's exactly what I did. After taking a good shower and drying off, I spread baking soda under my arms with a crumpled tissue (my grandmother was the last person I knew who owned a powder puff).

I gave it a good 4 passes to be sure that a solid layer of baking soda would stick to my skin. Here's what I did that day: Commuted to work, worked all day in a questionably-ventilated office and took a power walk in balmy late-summer weather. When I still didn't have a trace of body odor, I upped the ante by moving furniture and by running errands by foot. Still no B.O.

The next day, I didn't shower. I wanted to find out if baking soda would absorb the body odor that should have been present. I reapplied it, and the whole day, I still didn't smell. So there you have it: store brand baking soda applied with a crumpled tissue was a 100 percent effective deodorant for me.

Deodorant #3: A Slice of Lemon

I got the idea of rubbing a lemon slice on my armpits in lieu of chemical deodorant from a New York Times article ("The Great Unwashed", October 28, 2010). The article begins by discussing an executive who showers only 4 times a week and uses a sliced lemon to "wipe away" underarm odor.

"If it works for an executive, perhaps it could work for little old me," I thought.

I've read in many natural living blogs that citrus oils are effective at fighting body odor, so I had reason to believe that the lemon would work. At 8:30 AM, I rubbed a big lemon slice on my armpits after showering at the gym. I stopped at Trader Joe's in Union Square, and then schlepped two heavy bags of groceries, my gym bag and my laptop bag 5 blocks to the office.

I did a sniff test when I sat down to work and found that my shirt was saturated with the smell of lemon. So far so good. At 1 PM I took my lunchtime power walk (read: lunging through tourists and sandwich-eating office workers in Union Square in the 85 degree sun), and returned to my desk with rings of sweat on my shirt (appetizing, I know). The fresh lemon smell on my shirt had morphed to something like 95% lemon Pledge and 5% locker room.

My other complaint about the lemon is that as soon as I started actually sweating, I got an itchy, stinging sensation in my pits. I questioned the wisdom of rubbing a raw, acidic lemon on porous skin, so I opted not to reapply the next morning before the gym. After running on New York Sports Clubs' "Woodway" treadmill for 40 minutes and then lifting weights on the previous day's lemon swipe, I still didn’t have much B.O. I wouldn't go to a meeting with clients smelling like I did, but seriously, it wasn't so bad. I give the lemon slice a "B" in odor control.

My grandfather used to say, "When in proximity, keep your distance." Deodorant, in addition to wearing headphones, talking quietly and looking away from the person you are squished up against so that it doesn't become an unwanted full-body embrace, is a gesture of respect. You have your intangible one centimeter of space, I have mine, and we'll get along fine.

To the majority of people who commute with me between Utica Ave and 14th St. -- Union Square: Thanks for wearing deodorant. Whether prefabricated or DIY, I'll continue to do the same for you.