Dr. Armpit and the Deodorant Disruptors: How odor-fighting startups are shaking up a $21.5 billion market

August 27, 2022, 11:00 AM UTC
Belgian bioengineer Chris Callewaert
Dr. Armpit, a.k.a. body-odor researcher Chris Callewaert, strikes a pose.
Tom Jackson

This story begins with a one-night stand. 

Chris Callewaert, a Belgian bioengineer whose colleagues have branded him “Dr. Armpit,” traces the start of his career back to a night of romance when he was a 21-year-old student. As flings go, it might have been forgotten—but for a twist. He had smelled fine the day before. But suddenly, after the liaison, he stunk. 

He had just learned the hard way that the bacteria that caused bad body odor could be transferred by, ahem, extreme closeness—a fact of which few consumers were aware, then or now. 

Callewaert, now 36 and a research fellow at Ghent University, says it took him about three years to “reset” his body odor, which he finally did after distressed attempts to hide the smell with deodorant gave way to the triumph of emerging science. He eventually realized that if a bad mix of bacteria made him smell terrible, a good mix of bacteria in the armpit could help him smell, well, not so bad. His solution: A pioneering underarm bacterial transplant. Now Callewaert doesn’t use deodorant at all.

“I may sweat,” he clarifies. “But it doesn’t stink.” 

At this point you may be asking yourself: “Wait, is everything I know about deodorant wrong?” And a cottage industry of deodorant innovators are betting on your confusion.

Dr. Armpit (he has embraced that moniker) is developing a probiotic deodorant that can tweak the user’s underarm microbiome. And he’s one of a handful of pioneers who are shaking up an industry dominated for decades by standard formulas and the giants of the consumer goods industry. 

Together, they’re reinventing how eau du armpit is formulated, marketed, and sold. Their efforts are not without risks. But if they get it right, the financial rewards may smell surprisingly sweet. Get ready for the Great Deodorant Disruption. 

A new twist on a century-old terror 

In an exposed-brick office in south London, Freddy Ward is rifling through shelves of salmon-pink boxes, and rattling off scents: jasmine and mandarin blossom, “CANDYfloss,” fresh cotton & sea salt (the best seller), peach Bellini. I raise a bamboo Bellini capsule to my nose and give it a good sniff. It smells like a slushy peach cocktail, best drunk on the beach. 

Wild founder Freddy Ward.
Wild founder Freddy Ward and one of his company’s refillable deodorant cases.
Courtesy of Wild

Ward is the co-founder of the London-based deodorant brand Wild, which sells sturdy aluminum cases and the refillable, subscription-based pods that go inside them, each of which lasts four to six weeks. The aluminum cases are also stacked on shelves, showing off appealing designs of their own: leopard print; a rainbow case for Pride; a mosaic of blues, greens, and purples. 

The atmosphere is inviting, but I’m a little uneasy. I’d slathered myself at home with Wild’s coconut & vanilla scent, applied from a blue case, and I’m hoping the formula has stuck. On the bus over, I moved out of direct sunlight and resisted the urge to give myself a discreet sniff. Now, the fact that I’m about to interview a deodorant CEO has given me a heightened version of the social terror we’ve all been indoctrinated with since puberty: Do I stink? 

The history of the deodorant industry is the story of that fear. Before the turn of the 20th century, deodorant—and its common bedfellow, antiperspirant, which limits sweating—were virtually nonexistent. 

One of the earliest formulas was designed by a sweaty surgeon and sold by his entrepreneurial daughter, under the brand name “Odorno” (yes, that’s “Odor” and “no”), but it struggled to find its footing against the commonly held belief that sweating was, well, natural. 

To overcome this barrier, the daughter, Edna Murphey, hired a New York advertising firm that hit on a genius marketing strategy: playing on women’s fears. In an article for Smithsonian Magazine, science journalist Sarah Everts tracked that first 1919 deodorant campaign, which declared pit aroma distinctly unfeminine. The campaign planted the seeds of a terrifying social nightmare: You stink, but no one is telling you. (That’s where all those marriage proposals went. Ouch.) 

Advertisers eventually began playing on men’s fears, too—mainly, in Depression-era America, the fear of losing your job due to your stench. But deodorants and antiperspirants only entered the mainstream after the Second World War. They would go on to become an unsexy behemoth, dominated by the grandaddies of the personal-hygiene space: Unilever and Procter & Gamble. The deodorant sector was worth an estimated $21.5 billion worldwide in 2021, and $5.3 billion in the U.S., according to Euromonitor. Nearly 56% of the U.S. market is controlled by Unilever and P&G alone. 

This is despite the fact that, fundamentally, most people don’t understand what deodorant is. The term is often used interchangeably with “antiperspirant”, sometimes even by brands, even though antiperspirant is designed to stop sweating, and typically contains aluminum that clogs the sweat pores. Deodorant, by contrast, merely limits sweat—usually with baking soda. Its main goal is to reduce bad smells, primarily by eliminating bacteria, or at least to mask them with something nicer. 

The habitual confusion underscores a broader idea: After a century of cultural training, applying deodorant is something most Westerners do almost unconsciously. 

“It always felt to me like something that we all use, but you don’t really think twice about,” says Greg Laptevsky, the founder of New York City-based deodorant label Myro. “It’s meant to blend into your everyday routine.” 

Much like national security intelligence, we tend to only notice deodorant when something goes horribly wrong. 

Giants join the ‘natural’ bandwagon

But in recent years, deodorant watchers (sniffers?) have noticed multiple new trends rolling out in the world of roll-ons. One trend has been a shift towards “natural” deodorants. These use natural fragrances and oils rather than more purified synthetic scents and petrochemicals, for example, and avoid using aluminum to help with dryness.

The backlash against aluminum itself is due to longstanding fears that it could contribute to cancer. Dr. Armpit notes there is no conclusive scientific evidence of this, though he adds that he believes more studies should be conducted to understand the potential risks. The trend away from aluminum has nonetheless continued to grow, and is best exemplified by the rise of Native, a direct-to-consumer, natural deodorant label that was bought by P&G for $100 million in 2017; Unilever announced it was buying Schmidt’s Naturals, a competitor, for an undisclosed amount the same year.  

Another trend is the rise of new research around the microbiome, and the reassessment of how our unique cocktail of bacteria—in our guts, but also on our skin—can contribute to our health. 

Still another shift focuses mainly around different approaches to marketing and selling deodorant. That includes combining the direct-to-consumer and subscription-based models of meal kit companies like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh—both Ward, at Wild, and Laptevsky, at Myro, are veterans of such companies—with the low-waste and reusable movement. (Ward’s co-founder, Charlie Bowes-Lyon, had started a reusable coffee cup company before the duo launched Wild.) 

But the pandemic, no doubt, has been another significant spur to reform. During the months of lockdowns, deodorant usage dropped dramatically, due to . . . well, I’m sure you know why. In April 2021, Unilever noted on a quarterly earnings call that deodorant sales had declined by “high single digits” due to “low usage.” In March of this year, the company told industry publication The Grocer that it was launching a three-year overhaul of its deodorant products. Monique Rossi, marketing director at Unilever, told the publication the market was “in serious need of a makeover” after a “stagnant” few years. (Unilever declined to speak to Fortune for this article.) The company, which had lost pit-stick market share in both the U.S. and U.K. between 2019 and 2021, said it intended to mix things up with “a series of new ground-breaking, technology-driven products.”

The consumer giant’s opening salvo came quickly. In May, Unilever released what it called the “biggest deodorant breakthrough in decades”: a range of anti-perspirant products with “motion sense” technology—releasing a “burst of fragrance” as the wearer moves—that the company says are effective for 72 hours. (In other words, three days.) Unilever said the breakthrough involved 60 scientists and more than 200 clinical studies, with testing that included swathes of volunteers in “hot rooms” at the world-leading deodorant R&D center in the English city of Leeds.

The big brands seem locked in an arms-race over just how long an antiperspirant can last: P&G’s Old Spice and Secret brands now also offer 72 hour coverage; and Sure (owned by Unilever) offers 96 hours—four days

Still, the CPG giants haven’t stopped courting the small but presumably influential and affluent natural-deodorant crowd. Big brands have released “aluminum-free” formulas and announced packaging shifts, too. In April 2021,  Unilever’s Dove brand released a reusable stainless steel case with refill pods in U.S. stores. 

Meanwhile, the flock of upstarts have continued to make strides. Since the start of 2017, four companies that sell “natural” deodorant in refillable, subscription models—including By Humankind and the U.K.’s Fussy, alongside Myro and Wild—have collectively raised roughly $27 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. 

That may be peanuts compared to the size of the global deodorant market. But Gaurav Kalwani, a research analyst at Euromonitor, notes that the consumer giants have taken note of the trend towards “premiumization” that the upstarts represent. A Wild case plus a deodorant refill sells for £15 (about $18) in the U.K., about triple the price of a standard Dove stick. 

“The strategy of P&G and Unilever has been to either emulate the features that made these smaller brands successful, or simply acquire the brand itself,” Kalwani said. “If I had to guess, I would say the next big trend in deodorant will be the increased use of subscription models.” 

‘How’s that sh*tty deodorant company you’re running?’

To be sure, getting people excited about deodorant hasn’t been easy, and that caveat has often applied to the CEOs of the upstarts themselves. Laptevsky of Myro said he had the idea to start a refillable deodorant brand after realizing his bathroom was a wasteland of single-use products that he thought should be converted to reusable models. Deodorant wasn’t so much the goal as the test case. To prove his point, he admits he was looking for “the most boring product ever.” 

The investors he was approaching for funding were skeptical, too. “The person on the other side of the table has to get past the fact that they’re investing in deodorant,” Laptevsky said. What’s more, investors had to buy into the low-waste test case enough to see past the fact that the big consumer brands “have teams and teams of people that can make whatever you want to make, but better.” 

And the formulas have, indeed, proven tricky. In February 2020, Myro pulled its products out of stores after a tweak to the brand’s formula inadvertently made it “overly soft and mushy,” as the company confessed on social media, which resulted in leaking sticks and gave some customers rashes. 

Ward, of Wild, admits that early test formulas were ineffective and unpopular—including with family and friend testers. 

“Every family occasion, [my brother] is like, ‘How’s that shitty deodorant company you’re running?’” he tells me. “I promise you, it’s better now.” Among the improvements: In those early days, Ward says, the roses and coconuts and lavenders were just too gentle, he says. The company had to dial up the (good) smells. 

Ward’s family ribbing underpins the fact that, no matter how cute a case is—or how good it smells—a new deodorant first and foremost has to work. And shoppers have to be persuaded to take a not-insubstantial risk, largely on the strength of online reviews alone. 

There’s one group that’s still the most likely to take the leap. Though the deodorant- disrupting founders skew male, Ward says Wild largely markets its products to women, particularly between 30 and 45. 

Wild made an attempt at a manly black case and a musky sandalwood case, Ward says. It flopped. “Men don’t care as much,” he says. “It’s like, ‘My spray deodorant works. I’ve bought it for ten years.’” 

That points to one more area that might be ripe for change. In the decades since worries about marriage proposals launched the modern deodorant ad, the product has largely continued to be marketed in ways that are as gendered as pink-and-blue baby showers. Men get sports-themed ads and sandalwood, while women get floral scents and messages about body image. The so-called “pink tax,” too, has remained intact. A study published in May 2021 found that women in the U.S. pay significantly more than men for their deodorant ($2.86 per ounce versus $2.39/ounce), and get less product per stick. 

Better deodorant—or no deodorant?

For Chris Callewaert, the last few years of disruption have offered an opportunity. While he seems to revel in poking fun at our taboos around body odor—a recent photoshoot of him in the Times of London features him casually posing in a white T-shirt, one arm behind his neck to display an underarm, looking more like a model than a bioengineer—it has also had benefits for his work. People finally want to talk about body odor. 

He and a co-founder, apparel designer Rosie Broadhead, are planning to officially launch their probiotic deodorant start-up late this year or early next year, backed by Ghent University as a spin-off company. The brand will help anyone with a bit of odor, he says, but is mostly for people who smell really terrible, or more specifically, “very sour, musty, strong, oniony, fecal-like, dirty overall.”  

As for what it will be called, he’s still weighing ideas. “For now it is just Dr. Armpit, but this will change.”   

But counterintuitively, for a man about to launch a deodorant company, Dr. Armpit argues that the solution for many people may not be more deodorant, but less. 

Because traditional deodorant blitzes bacteria, the microbiome that tends to come back is more aggressive, and, well, stinkier. As Callewaert describes it, it’s almost analogous to the way that overuse of antibiotics can help create “superbugs.”

“Many people come to me and said, ‘we’ve tried everything’ . . .  and the fact is, the more they use, the worse it gets,” he says. Stopping altogether, at that point, feels risky—all the better for Big Deodorant. “It’s an industry that keeps itself going,” he says wryly. 

While health research funding has (rightly) gone to diseases and public health, Callewaert points out that even excessive sweating is still much better understood than the science of bad B.O. And he’s dismissive of the idea that body odor is a minor issue in our lives. For those who smell unappealing despite good personal hygiene, he says, their choice of romantic partner, their jobs, their school experiences, and more are often all influenced by their distress about their body odor. In those cases, there really isn’t a simple solution on the market, he says. “It’s really heart-breaking.”

But for the rest of us, in the decades since deodorant burst onto the scene, we’ve become fixated on worrying we smell—and, in the process, he argues, we have actually started to smell worse. It doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps the most radical deodorant disruption of all is the one Dr. Armpit suggests: Try not wearing it at all. 

“I’ve stuck my nose in many armpits,” he says—so many, in fact, that he can now identify different types of pit bacteria on scent alone. “I know exactly what it can be, and what it should not be. And armpits can actually smell good.”

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