The Nickel Pincher: Make Your Own Organic Deodorant and Skin-Care Products

A lot of toxic ingredients lurk in personal-care products, and you can avoid them all by making your own.

October 20, 2010

Face it: Natural ingredients are better for your skin.

From Madison Avenue’s point of view, I’m a very poor consumer: I don’t use much in the way of fancy skin-care products or cosmetics. I’ve been brushing my teeth with plain baking soda for 30 years (look, Ma, another perfect checkup!), and when I feel the need to rinse out my mouth with something other than water, a tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide in a small glass of water (mixed up fresh each time) does the trick. A few years ago, I replaced my shampoo with a simple, inexpensive recipe using ingredients from my pantry, and I use natural bar soap made by a local crafter with real essential oils (I could make my own, but I’m happy supporting my local crafter). I dilute natural dishwashing liquid (I use Ecover) for homemade hand soap.


Why? Premade products cost way too much, I have better things to do with my time than fuss with them, and most are full of mysterious ingredients that may or may not be bad for my long-term health (a good place to check what’s in personal-care products and why you might rather not smear them on your body is Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetic-safety database).

But despite all that, antiperspirant, lip balms, and hand and body lotion remain on my list of regularly or occasionally used personal-care products. Since antiperspirant was the one I used the most often, I finally decided last spring that the time had come to toss my effective but truly nasty antiperspirant stick, which contained things like paraben preservatives, synthetic fragrance, assorted synthetic petrochemicals, and the antibacterial triclosan, and find a natural underarm deodorant product that worked for me.

Homemade Deodorants

I knew I’d have to give up on antiperspirants (which block perspiration) and settle for a deodorant, as common antiperspirants rely on aluminum compounds, known to cause neurological problems, to swell your sweat glands shut. Luckily, sweat itself does not smell. Body odor comes from the bacteria that feast on your sweat; inhibit the bacteria and you will stay shower-fresh all day. Most people do not perspire all that much during routine activities, anyway, especially after their sweat glands have rid themselves of the toxins in commercial antiperspirants and deodorants (this last is key to remember as you make the transition from chemical-laden products to simple, natural ones; as the first few days you may sweat a bit more before your body settles down).

Health-food stores sell an assortment of natural deodorants. You’ll see they often contain baking soda, tea tree or other natural essential oils, or potassium alum (a natural mineral that has nothing to do with aluminum, despite the name overlap). [Correction: Potassium alum is an aluminum salt, but it does not have the same health effects as the aluminum compounds, such as aluminum chloride, used in conventional antiperspirants, according to the Environmental Working Group.] All are quite effective natural bacteria inhibitors, and the oils add a pleasant—and safe—aroma (unlike synthetic fragrance). One product you may see is a natural hunk of crystallized potassium alum. I have one and find it quite effective: Simply moisten it slightly and rub it over your pits, and it works. (Just remember to give yourself a few days to adjust to it.)

Still, you don’t have to buy a ready-made product. Here are a couple of simple recipes that work well.

Deodorant Powder

1 part baking soda
6 parts organic corn starch OR arrowroot powder
A few drops of tea tree oil or your favorite essential oil (optional)

Combine well and store in an airtight glass jar. Dust your underarms sparingly.

Deodorant Cream

This one is good if you shave and tend to get rash.

1 part baking soda
1 part pure shea butter
1 part organic coconut oil
A few drops of tea tree oil or your favorite essential oil (optional)

Heat the shea butter briefly in the microwave or in a double boiler to soften it, then combine it with the other ingredients. Store in a covered glass jar. Apply a tiny bit with your fingertips.

Deodorant Stick

1 part baking soda
2 parts pure shea butter
A few drops of tea tree oil or your favorite essential oil (optional)

As above, heat the shea butter briefly in the microwave or in a double boiler to soften it, then combine it with the other ingredients. Pack your mixture into an empty stick applicator (save and clean out an old one, or buy new ones from a crafting supply store). Apply lightly to underarms.

Lip Balms and Body Lotions

Even though I almost always wear gloves when I work outside, my hands do sometimes get rough or even cracked, especially when it’s wet out or the day is especially long. And my back and legs tend to get dry and itchy, especially in the winter. Pure shea butter works well for dry, cracked hands at night. For larger areas, I prefer using straight organic coconut oil; it is a soft solid below 76 degrees F, but melts in the heat of your hand to become an easily absorbed liquid. When I need a little extra moisture, I'll make one of the following recipes.

Herbal Hand and Lip Balm

1 cup organic olive or almond oil
½ cup dried organic herbs (I like lavender and rosemary)
2/3 cup grated organic beeswax
A few drops of your favorite essential oil (optional)

Combine the oil and herbs in a double boiler and heat over simmering water for at least 15 minutes. Strain the oil through a coffee filter and return it to the double boiler. Add the grated beeswax and essential oil (if using), stirring until smooth. Pour into jars; the lotion will firm up as it cools. You can skip both the herb-infusion step and the essential oil if you like and make plain almond-beeswax balm, too.

Fancy Body Oil (for moisturizing or massage)

1 cup organic olive oil, almond oil, or coconut oil
A few drops of your favorite essential oil (patchouli and sandlewood, cypress and bergamont, or rose and ylang ylang are great combinations to try)

Combine oils (heat coconut oil over hot water to liquefy) and store in a glass bottle.

Note: For maximum shelf life, oil-based products should be kept in a cool, dark place away from sunshine and heat sources. Mix up only as much as you are likely to use in the next six to 12 months.

Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on