The fear-mongering narrative around conventional deodorant is like the health-scare version of Coach Carr's safe-sex speech in Mean Girls: If you use it, then the aluminum and parabens will seep in through your armpit and work their way into your bloodstream and then you will get cancer and you will die.
The reality is not quite so extreme. Nobody even knows for sure if any of those ingredients will disrupt your hormones or do any of the terrible, terrible things we've been told they might do. But that's not really why I stopped using them. I stopped using them because, in my experience, deodorants and antiperspirants do not work as well as they should. The number of white T-shirts I've stained yellow in the pits is preposterous, borderline criminal; I shudder to think of the percentage of my young adult life I've spent smelling like a toxic combination of sweat and a plastic floral arrangement melting in the sun.
Of all the natural deodorants I've tried, which is many, I've found a handful that really do work... until about two weeks in, when I invariably develop red, itchy contact dermatitis from baking soda. Baking soda is highly alkaline, and highly abrasive on the skin; it is also the key ingredient that gives most natural deodorants their sweat-absorbing, odor-fighting power, along with equally sensitizing essential oils. I figured I was doomed to a lifetime of red, itchy, irritated — yet blissfully B.O.-free — armpits. Then, I discovered the armpit detox.
Kaia Naturals is not the first brand to endorse using charcoal as a means of controlling odor-causing bacteria — your local health-food store that sells dried mango by the pound was way ahead of the game on this one — but it is making it easier, and more aesthetically appealing, than ever before. With its striped packaging and minimalist sans-serif branding, the Takesumi detox is easy on the eyes, and because it's formulated without baking soda, it's easy on the armpits, too. But not too easy: The combination of activated charcoal and a proprietary ferment (think kombucha or kefir) that balances the microbiome focuses on eliminating the source of the smell, as opposed to just covering it up.
The Canadian-born brand's founder, Mary Futher, says that while she was in the process of developing her product, several of the retailers she planned to work with reported that far too many customers were returning their natural deodorants due to irritation caused by baking soda. "We wanted to create a natural deodorant that was just as effective as baking soda, but gentler," Futher says. "That’s when we discovered activated charcoal and its amazing deodorizing and detoxifying properties."
There's one small catch with the detox, which is that it might get worse before it gets better. There is an adjustment period — generally around one to two weeks — in which you will sweat more, and possibly even smell more, and that's normal and fine. Fortunately, Futher and her team didn't stop at creating something that worked; they created something that smelled good, too. "There was a need for more sophisticated and luxurious scent profiles in the natural deodorant category," she says, so Kaia Naturals tapped a renowned perfumer to create six sophisticated scents — that smell nothing like baby powder or a piña colada.
More recently, Lavanila has followed suit with a charcoal-infused detox of its own, in the form of an underarm mask meant to be used once or twice a week in conjunction with the brand's natural deodorants; Boscia, too, has a charcoal-based powder spray. There's clearly something to the trend, and it's one that the average consumer who still reaches for the big drugstore brands is missing out on, likely out of one particular fear: "If there's one phrase we still hear once a day," Futher says, "it's that 'natural deodorants just don't work.'"
So, um, does it work? In my experience, that's an emphatic yes. Whether you want to avoid aluminum or, like me, are simply sick of ruining your whites and smelling like a genetically-modified cucumber, the pit purge is certainly worth a try. And what better time to detox than during the summer, when you're all but guaranteed to not be the worst-smelling person on the subway by a long shot?