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Inside the $22 billion deodorant industry’s effort to ditch plastic

Brands large and small are finally moving away from plastic packaging. It’s a start.

Inside the $22 billion deodorant industry’s effort to ditch plastic
[Photos: Bite, Wellow, Fussy]

Over the past few years, the deodorant industry has seen a major shift. First, it was the inside: deodorant brands like Schmidt’s, Native, and even Dove ditched aluminum and other chemicals and embraced natural formulas to help neutralize our BO. Then it was the outside: brands like Humankind, Ethique and Bai-li launched deodorants with zero-waste packaging, all of them made of paperboard.

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All of these brands share the same concern: plastic packaging is one of the greatest generators of plastic pollution. The deodorant industry, in particular, produces over 15 million pounds of plastic waste each year, so brands are reconsidering the way they wrap their products. It comes with a little consumer retraining (instead of twisting or simply lifting the cap to apply, you have to push up the deodorant stick with a finger,) but more and more brands are jumping on the bandwagon. The global deodorant and antiperspirant market was worth almost $22 billion in 2018, and it’s projected to reach over $30 billion by 2026. Zero-waste deodorants may be better for the planet, but clearly, there’s something in it for businesses, too—and as packaging is the face of a brand, first impressions are everything.

“Brands have begun to really embrace the fact that packaging is a consumer touchpoint, so how they present their brand on the shelf is as impactful as how they present their brand in advertising,” says Beth Egan, an advertising professor at Syracuse University who has 25 years of experience with consumer packaged goods in the travel and beauty sectors.

For Egan, that awareness is largely driven by gen Z. “We talked about sustainability for years, but the reality was that consumers weren’t willing to put their money where their mouth was,” she says. Now, the tables are turning: “Consumers are refusing to engage with brands who aren’t walking the walk,” says Egan.

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[Photo: Bite]
In the deodorant world, the walk starts with the formula, but to make a full impact, it had to expand to the packaging. In September, Bite, a company that makes plastic-free toothpaste bits that you chew, rebranded to Because It’s The Earth and introduced a deodorant. Infinitely refillable, it comes in a sleek, angular aluminum case that houses compostable paperboard refills.

[Photo: Bite]
Lindsay McCormick, the company’s founder and CEO, opted for an aluminum case because she wasn’t happy with cardboard tubes that would get “soggy,” which impacted the integrity of the packaging. “We wanted something that would look beautiful on your bathroom shelf, so we opted for a mirror-like finish that is meant to get scratched up,” she explains. “Like an aluminum suitcase, it looks more well-traveled over time.” (The case feels nice and cool to the touch, and while the stick ends up crumbling a little on the edges, it’s easy to apply and it works wonders for me.)

For Egan, the quality of the packaging can be a source of profit, too. “Think of Lancôme,” she says. “Part of why you’re paying more for Lancôme is the beautiful packaging.” With Bite, the aluminum case sells for $12 (though you only have to buy it once), while refills cost $16 a pop. That’s significantly more than the $5 deodorant you pick up at the pharmacy, but then again, it comes with zero plastics.

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[Photo: Fussy]
Refills have been gaining in popularity. In May this year, the British brand Fussy launched a refillable deodorant with plastic-free refills. Shaped like a pebble, it was designed by London design studio Blond to fit through a U.K. letterbox, since the product is sold via subscription model.

[Photo: Fussy]
Fussy’s deodorant features a spinning module at the base, which makes the process more intuitive (though in the several weeks I used the product, the spinning mechanism wasn’t as smooth as expected.) The case itself is made of recycled plastic, also known as PCR, meaning that no new plastic is ending up in landfills. “It’s a versatile material that allows design freedom and an accessible price point,” says Blond’s founder James Melia. Technically, PCR can be recycled, but only once or twice before it starts to degrade. However, because the product uses refills, the case was designed to last years.

I’ve been using Fussy for weeks and it hasn’t failed me once, even on a transatlantic flight while lugging a heavy suitcase. The deodorant sits nicely in the palm of my hand, but even though it’s recycled, I’m still on the fence about the plastic case. I know that it’s a mental shift, but we’ve been so conditioned to hate single-use plastic that my brain now seems incapable of seeing the value in any kind of plastic, even though this has essentially been diverted from the landfill.

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By comparison, deodorants in a cardboard tube felt cleaner and more natural to me, even though they may require more effort from the brand. Dan Hernden and Martin Ochwat launched their deodorant brand Wellow in March 2021. Hernden explains that they had to create the company’s supply chain mostly from scratch. “We found it challenging to find suppliers that had experience working with materials other than plastic,” he says. “Most personal-care supply chains today are built around liquid formulas in disposable, low-cost plastic packaging.”

[Photo: Wellow]
Wellow deodorants come in the shape of a simple, robust tube with a thick paperboard case. I’ve been using Wellow for about 10 days, and the cardboard casing hasn’t budged. Compared to others on the market, the price seems right too, at $12 a piece, without the need for a protective case.

The entire product is 100% recyclable, or compostable. The team even put this claim to the test during their Kickstarter campaign. Hernden says it took less than 12 weeks for the cardboard tubes to decompose into the soil, so when I’m done with mine, I’m simply going to put it in the compost bin and move on. “When we coat paper coffee cups with a layer of plastic so they don’t get soggy, we create a new Frankenstein material that goes straight into the garbage,” says Hernden. “One of the great opportunities of our times is to reimagine consumer products and find a sustainable path forward.”

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[Photo: Wellow]
Wellow is only within its first year of business, as is every deodorant I tried for this story. Today, small companies may be leading the way to the zero-waste revolution, but it will take some heavyweights producing products at scale to really make a splash. Already, larger beauty companies are catching on. Dove, which in 2019 was leading the way in the U.S. with deodorant sales of more than $200 million, launched its first refillable deodorant in January. It comes in a stainless-steel case and refills are made from 98% recycled polypropylene. Then Secret and Old Spice (both manufactured by Procter & Gamble) followed suit in February, with refillable antiperspirant cases made of recyclable paper-tube packaging.

Most new, niche deodorant brands can only be purchased online. And while Dove and P&G’s refillable deodorants are available across Target, Walmart, and Amazon, it will take many more locations for people to make the swap and ditch plastic deodorants. Then, maybe we can tackle plastic-free mascaras. And lipsticks. And every piece of plastic-packaged cosmetics currently sitting on the shelves of my local pharmacy.

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