The head of Unilever’s R&D lab, Douglas Tomczak, tosses what looks like a miniature plunger in my direction. “Want to venture a guess in terms of what it is?” he asks. The plastic straw with its shiny metal cap is a valve mechanism, and “the heart of the innovation” behind Unilever’s new aerosol product, says Tomczak.
This is the technology behind “the first disruptive innovation in the deodorant category” in over 10 years, per Sarah Montante, Unilever’s brand manager. That “disruptive innovation” comes in the form of a dry spray, a new take on an old format that Unilever is launching in matte aluminum cans across five of its brands—Dove Men, Dove Women, Degree Men, Degree Women, and Axe—this December.
Of course, spray cans already existed. The valve is what separates the new Degree cans with the old ones, and what makes this an “innovation,” as opposed to a product relaunch. The old “bug cans,” as they’re called, shoot aggressive torrents of chilled liquid-antiperspirant into our armpits. Unlike the old dispensers, the new spray mechanism has been designed for minimal clogging, which results in a smooth, non-threatening stream of sweat-killing particles. Tomczak and his team have also retooled the antiperspirant’s formula, the liquid allegedly now formulated to come out of the valve with less verve. It dries quicker, too.
But the truth is, all of this activity might not be necessary. Unilever doesn’t really have to innovate: Americans are addicted to deodorant, even without a “better” application method.
America didn’t always have a love affair with dry pits. The first ever trademarked antiperspirant, Everdry, came out in 1903. It worked, but the user experience lacked. From a 1990 New York Times article: “Everdry was cold, sticky, slow to dry, and so stinging and acidic that it ate through clothing.” Not surprisingly, it didn’t take off.
Soon after, a similar product called Odorono (Odor? Oh no!) launched. It too had application problems, as described by Smithsonian Magazine: “Odorono could irritate sensitive armpit skin and damage clothing. Adding insult to injury, the antiperspirant was also red-colored, so it could also stain clothing—if the acid didn’t eat right through it first.” Brutal.
Yet, the risk factors weren’t the only thing holding Odorono back from mainstream success. The company’s internal research found that two-thirds of potential consumers didn’t think they had sweat problems. A 1919 ad in Ladies Home Journal changed all of that, informing women that they might not think they smell, but they do. Not wearing deodorant meant risking losing a man. By 1927 the company had reached $1 million in sales by convincing ladies they had foul pits.
To this day, that farce continues.
Formulations for antiperspirant have improved since Odorono. The drug store variants don’t burn through clothing, for one. But, the actual need (or lack thereof) for the product hasn’t changed. As recently as 2007 a half a dozen dermatologists told the New York Times that most people don’t physically require antiperspirants. “For the average person, if you just wash once or twice a day, excessive smell and excessive sweat shouldn’t be an issue,” said Dr. Doris Day. A dermatologist I spoke with agreed. And yet, so used to Sahara desert dry underarms, we can’t live without it.
American’s view the morning armpit swipe as a necessary part of our daily routines. The deodorant category, which includes both deodorizers (to stop smelling) and antiperspirants (to stop sweating), is therefore what economists call “inelastic.” “Deodorants, a highly homogenous category, is underpinned by highly inelastic demand from a population that considers proper hygiene to basically be mandatory within the confines of normal society,” an analyst from Euromonitor told me.
Despite marketing claims, the available products, especially antiperspirants, contain one of the handful of FDA approved active ingredients, most commonly aluminium chlorohydrate and aluminium zirconium tetrachlorohydrate. The aluminum ions in those compounds mix with sweat and literally plug up armpit ducts to stop further perspiration. The current crop of gels, sticks, and sprays all get the job done, more than satisfying consumers, who spent $2.2 billion on the sweat and smell repellants last year.
“There are very few negative factors which could dramatically alter sales of deodorants in the future,” the analyst continued. Not even the 2009 recession dented sales.
Even the potential link between the aluminum found in antiperspirants and cancer and Alzheimer’s hasn’t change the perceived need for antiperspirant. It’s possible that the stainless steel industry, threatened by aluminum packaging, started rumors about the evils of aluminum as early as the ’20s, according to some accounts. But concerns for Alzheimer’s peaked in the ’70s when studies linking Alzheimer’s to aluminum first came out. The research found higher levels of aluminum in the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s patients. The theories led to reduced sales of aluminum containers, but didn’t really dent antiperspirant sales. Eventually the aluminum scare fizzled, as further research muddied the theory. At this point, the Alzheimer’s Association says there is no “definitive link,” and most people don’t think twice about the daily application of the metal.
The link between breast cancer surfaced in the ’90s when studies came out showing that women who shaved more often and used antiperspirant had higher incidence of breast cancer. Experts say more research has to be done, but the official word from the American Cancer Society is that there is “no convincing evidence,” and again, most of us still use antiperspirant.
While deodorant sticks now circle the globe, its use is perhaps most firmly embedded in this country’s culture. “It’s a very hyper-American category I would say,” Andrew Goetz, of Malin and Goetz, which makes an all natural aluminum free deodorant, said. Indeed, sprays are much more popular in Europe and Latin America. With ingredient awareness on the rise, natural deodorants like his product should be gaining in popularity. And they are, according to Euromonitor, but at a much smaller clip than natural alternatives in other beauty categories.
It’s mostly because natural deodorants are perceived as terrible. The Hairpin’s Edith Zimmerman chronicled her “quiet, mostly disgusting adventures with natural deodorant” in 2010. Her conclusion: “It seemed like it’d be a breeze to switch to regular old aluminum-free deodorant—a.k.a. natural deodorant,” she writes. “It was not. They are all horrible.” And for addicted American consumers, efficacy trumps everything.
Because of fears linking aluminum to breast cancer and Alzheimer’s, “natural” deodorants stay away from the metal and other chemicals found in the drug store variants, such as parabens. Without sweat halting chemicals, natural offerings can’t technically market themselves as antiperspirants. This is good, since they don’t actually stop sweat. Instead, they attempt to limit BO using bacteria, essential oils, powders, clays, and anything else that might work. It’s a tough feat, and probably why people switching from drug store brands think natural options don’t work. All of the several natural deodorant companies I spoke with mentioned having trouble finding the right combination of ingredients, spending years perfecting their recipes. “We had the darndest time getting it right,” said Goetz. “We worked with our chemist and we couldn’t do it.” The makers of Soapwalla and Whish, two other popular products, had similar issues.
Malin and Goetz’s product eventually landed on a combination of eucalyptus and Citronellyl Methylcrotonate, which, according to Goetz “reacts to your sweat and starts digesting the perspiration and gives off an odor,” he said. “They basically eat the thing that causes the odor.” Soapwalla, another popular chemical-free variant, uses essential oils to stop smell and clays and powders to soak up sweat. Whish, which comes in towelette form, uses a plant enzyme.
These products work for some people. Soapwalla has a cult following, which includes Zimmerman. She discovered it two years after her original experiment, calling it “the actual natural deodorant holy grail.” My particular pits, however, did not react well to the gritty cream. I may not have smelled, but it left me sweaty and stung when applied after shaving, a particularly problematic affliction during tank top season.
And that’s why natural deodorants haven’t gained a foothold in most American medicine cabinets: it’s an objective product. If it doesn’t work, or feel like it’s working, then we won’t use it.
The stability of the deodorant market works in Unilever’s favor. The company whose portfolio includes Axe, Degree, and Dove is the leading player in a very steady category, owning 35% of the retail value share. The company does, however, face one potential assault on its dominance. Again from Euromonitor: “The development of new technology or the targeting of a new demographic with a specific focus on particular application methods, be it roll-ons, sprays, or even creams could shift share from deodorant sticks.”
For that reason, the last couple of decades of deodorant innovation, at least from within the industry, have revolved around application process. Unilever risks losing market share to a competitor that comes up with a cleaner, better, more user-friendly experience. The new dry spray is an attempt to get ahead of that.
When I apply the new-fangled product, the spray feels like a burst of air. Once on, it leaves a thin a layer of protection that keeps sweat at bay, much like its stick equivalent. It’s useful in certain situations, I suppose, but what makes it a “disruptive innovation”—what problem does it solve?
“It’s a little goopy,” Matthew McCarthy, Unilever’s senior director of antiperspirants and deodorant, says of the old gel-stick application process. “They have to flap their arms up and down a bit” in order to dry off before putting on a shirt. With the spray, chicken dance no more. Just spray and go.
But that’s more like a tweak than a major change.
“Disruptive innovations come along rarely,” said Montante. “They require a lot of time and effort and R&D work as well as design work to craft them. They’re inherently risky: you’re taking consumers out of an expected pattern.” In the case of Unilever, that expected pattern is working for the company quite well. Why disrupt that?