Deodorants; how did they get so complicated?

11 min readApr 19, 2022


With sustainability taking the fore, we take a look at product design from the perspective of a circular economy, the balance between convenience and complexity, and the role of tomorrow’s designer.


Applying deodorant to our armpits has become such an essential part of our morning routine. Fresh out the shower, dry off, apply deodorant. We do it so instinctively that sometimes we don’t register the act of putting it on — but it soon becomes obvious when we forget.

It’s easy to see how the deodorant industry has become highly competitive and a hotbed for product development, worth £600 million in the UK alone.

For decades aerosols dominated our supermarket shelves, with household names like Lynx and Old Spice heavily marketing their products through sexualised imagery showing semi-naked models spraying themselves liberally from head to toe. Sometimes in the bathroom, sometimes on a beach, sometimes on a horse. These sprays seemed to be less about controlling body odour and more about carrying a fragrance. Less about tackling the root cause, more about drowning out odours.

Looking back, the amount necessary to spray on ourselves was an indication of how inefficient aerosols were — and still are — at delivering deodorant. It also makes apparent just how powerful the relentless marketing of these products has been in order to embed them unquestioningly into our routines.

Today, as consumers realise that aerosols and roll-on deodorant brands are effectively shipping us water (with a few additional ingredients such as air and propellants, in the case of aerosols), brands are developing rub-on sticks, with a focus on fewer, more natural ingredients. By no means a new format, but a format loaded with consumer preconceptions and challenges around convenience.

Today complex spray deodorants fill our supermarket shelves

Complex sells

It is incredible to see how aerosol packaging has evolved over the past decade, with some of the world’s largest fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands still pushing this wasteful method.

The aerosol can itself, typically made from aluminium, will generally comprise of eight internal parts, including; the actuator, valve, valve cup, stem, stem gasket, spring, housing and dip — plus the can itself. As these internal parts can’t be safely removed and separated by the consumer, they are ‘extracted’ as part of the recycling process. The good news is that the main body of the aerosol can is widely recycled. However, the addition of so many internal parts complicates the process. Whether or not the tiny ‘extracted’ plastic parts are recycled is unclear.

Years of iterative development, made by the short list of manufacturers who are actually capable of producing the volumes required, has effectively ‘fixed’ the design of the aerosol can. The cost implications of any minor tweaks to the tooling make change uneconomical. Therefore, any development and innovation is left to the plastic actuator and cap.

As we get deeper into the climate crisis it is more important than ever to challenge this innovation and ask; could the engineering prowess and energy invested in developing complex mechanisms have been focused on developing something a little more… beneficial??

As fun and engaging as these caps have become (and who doesn’t enjoy twisting a deodorant cap in one direction for the nozzle to surprise us and pop-up in another), we all know they are marketing gimmicks and offer very little user benefit. Whether this ‘benefit’ justifies the additional plastic is dubious; the sheer scale of the market means that every gram of material added to one product is multiplied by millions.

The issues that come with complex mechanisms are apparent at the end of the product’s life. That ‘magical’ user experience now needs to be disassembled, the components cleaned and put in the correct bin —revealing just how unbeneficial the ‘experience’ really is. Not a safe operation either. Once in the bin, we trust this plastic gets to the recycling centre -and is not just shipped abroad to already overwhelmed processing facilities.

It’s easy to look at recycling as a positive act, but in reality it’s the best consumers can do with the waste they’ve been sold. There is little visibility or public understanding for how much processing and energy goes into turning our plastic waste into a recycled material.

These overly complex products matter because as consumers we have accepted the functionality we are now afforded. An idea that started as a marketing gimmick is now being cited as user convenience, and once taken seriously is very hard to take away from people. We have reached a point where the only way to achieve this ‘convenience’ is by using plastic; ‘a deodorant should wind up with a lead-screw’, ‘a roll-on needs a ball’, ‘a cap needs to be locked’ -all functions dependant on plastic.

Sabotage helped to create the Sans- product experience — Photograph © Sans-

Designing from the ground up

Last year Sabotage were tasked with the creation and development of a sustainable deodorant from scratch. For a product so integrated into daily lives, the journey has been fascinating and surprisingly revelatory — and a great example of the modern designers shifting role in the industry.

Having previously worked with several of the world’s largest deodorant brands, the Sabotage team relished the opportunity to work with a small start-up and having the opportunity to explore without the burden of existing supply chains and manufacturers. It was very important for our client that each stage of the development cycle should remain transparent and be shared with the consumer — from sourcing our materials, through processing, to the end of the product’s life.

From the beginning, we wanted to focus on developing products that fit with the ‘circular economy’, described to be “based around the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems” by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.

Establishing this focus from the beginning meant that we could evaluate concepts in relation to this approach fairly early on and regularly in the design process. Then, we could define a brief based on the implications of the product’s functionality; we could weigh up consumer convenience, the resources available to us, manufacturing processes and the environmental impact.

Initially, we thought about creating a product that could last a lifetime, but this felt unrealistic — could we really be sure our consumer will use our product exclusively for their lifetime? We felt this was at best naive, at worst egotistical. No matter how great our fragrances would be in the future, we still needed to design a product that could be recycled efficiently.

Designing as little as possible — Photograph © Sans-

“Designing as little as possible”

A maxim often overused to define an aesthetic, but an approach that seemed necessary in the world of overly complicated packaging. This became our driving principle in the development process.

The team at Sans- worked tirelessly to develop a deodorant formula that also followed this principle. It was critical that all parts of the design process including the ingredient list followed a ‘less is more’ approach.

As mentioned previously, a stick deodorant was chosen as the most efficient way to apply deodorant whilst remaining compact and efficient through transportation. However, this presented its own challenges. Defining the viscosity of the stick is fundamental to the user experience. The team needed to find the sweet spot between a soft deodorant that could be easily rubbed into the armpit, yet not too soft it was difficult to hold. As we progressed, the friction between the deodorant and cardboard would also prove critical.

Once the deodorant formula had been defined, we looked at housing the product. For years, stick deodorants have been available in cardboard push-up tubes. It seemed that this was the obvious direction for the product — until we tested them. The reality was a horribly messy experience, with oils permeating through the cardboard walls and excess deodorant catching on the lid and spreading itself around our bags. The push-up method was beautifully simple, but the user experience needed to be clean if we were going to encourage loyalty from the brands users.

The big wind up

Once a design brief stipulates the product must not compromise consumer convenience, it’s easy to assume we should mimic today’s products as closely as possible, and in the case of stick deodorants, ‘it should wind up and down’. As soon as the team got the friction between the deodorant product and the cardboard tube right we found the stick really didn’t need to be held in place with a winding mechanism.

The prerequisite that a refillable deodorant must fit through the letterbox, as many new deodorant brands offer, also felt like a red herring. It seemed logical and justifiable initially; if a product can fit through a letterbox the postage is cheaper and it’s there waiting for us to get home. However, letterboxes in the UK don’t follow a standard size, which means, in order to account for all letterboxes, designers need to design around the smallest dimensions. Royal Mail measures a letterbox at 25mm high. Take the thickness of the cardboard packaging away from this and you end up with a very thin envelope to design around. At about 15mm diameter, any tube would be too narrow to push up with a finger -and at the correct volume, would be laughably long at 350mm.

The alternative is a ‘flat’ refill. As something that isn’t standard, this would require something completely bespoke and therefore hugely expensive. Suddenly the savings made in postage aren’t so impressive. Additionally, the maximum depth of 15mm still prohibits the use of our fingers to push the deodorant up, therefore requiring a durable, lightweight and cost-effective lead screw and accompanying platform. These are likely to be plastic components, and probably produced overseas.

This complexity is reflective of so many ‘sustainable’ solutions on the market today. Complicated products are being developed at huge cost to satisfy fairly minor convenience criteria. It feels like the ‘end of product use’ has had little, if any, thought.

In order to make plastic parts last, you need to make them thicker. Rather than reducing our reliance on crude oil and limiting the products impact on the planet, this seems counter intuitive. These products could last generations before degrading. Sabotage and Sans- were concerned that a new normal for misleading ‘sustainable deodorants’ was emerging — hugely complicated and reliant on plastic.

An alternative to oil based plastics would be PLA, a bioplastic derived from plant starch. As a material, PLA needs to be industrially composted, which requires collection or delivery to a specialist processing facility. It won’t decompose in the veg patch, or landfill, as it requires precise water, temperature and UV light conditions. We are seeing a lot of products on the market claiming to be compostable but this is misleading. Great that we’re not using oil, but in the current system, we’re left with more landfill.

Rediscovering processes

As Industrial Designers in the Anthropocene era, much of what we design is made from plastic. We know a huge amount about processing this material and can achieve almost anything with it.

As a result, becoming increasingly reliant on plastics, designers know less about other materials and processes. As we start to move away from finite, oil-based resources, designers will have to up their game in other areas.

As the Sans- team decided to create a plastic-free product, our designers were thrust into a space less familiar. This was exciting and reflective of a shift in our role.

At the beginning of our design process we spoke to manufacturers, from glass blowers to metal spinners, to learn more about their processes. We soon realised how many of these manufacturers had been working in a particular sector for a long time — typically heavily industrial and B2B. They had become very good at producing certain shapes for regular clients. For many of them, all their eggs were in one basket, at the whim of their client’s fortunes.

It was great to hear how many of these manufacturers wanted to work with us, reinvigorated by the brands interest in their process.

In the factory: Using as little Aluminium as possible — Photograph © Sans-

Aluminium body

We chose to create a case from Aluminium for several reasons. As a material, it holds its value and will not degrade as it is recycled. It won’t break down into micro-plastics. It is lightweight, so limits the impact during transportation. It is durable and will protect our refills. It also looks and feels like a product you want to keep.

As there are with all materials, there are downsides. Mining virgin aluminium is hugely energy intensive. An alternative is to manufacture using recycled aluminium.

The next step was to determine the manufacturing process, which needed to be as efficient as possible.

We quickly dismissed CNC machining, as this is hugely inefficient and wasteful for what we wanted to achieve. To cut the deodorant casing from a solid billet of aluminium would produce several cans worth of waste swarf, which, when mixed with coolants and lubricants, creates low value waste that is costly and difficult to recycle, as the coolant and cutting lubricants must first be removed from the swarf.

It made sense to use ‘impact aluminium extrusion’, which would allow us to use as little material as possible (the wall thickness could be as thin as a human hair). This meant our parts were also fast to manufacture, lightweight, tough and durable.

We almost decided to anodise the parts to further extend their life and give the cases colour, until we discovered how harmful this process was to the environment. The wastewater generated is highly toxic and results in aluminium hydroxide sludge, classified as hazardous waste. The fumes omitted are also considered harmful. Eventually, we decided to powder coat the cases for several reasons; no solvents are used, powder coatings don’t contain heavy metals like cadmium and lead (other finishes do) and the process is very efficient and eliminates wastage. Visually, we are also spoilt with a huge range of colours and finishes.

Simple Aluminium impact extrusion, powder coated in the brands colours

Local transportation

Finally, by mapping each process we saw the value in keeping industry local. The environmental costs of shipping parts between factories would not be acceptable, certainly not overseas. With the deodorant formula being created in the north of England, it was important that the tube, box, aluminium and powder coating facilities were all located a van-ride away from each other. Throughout product development too, it was important to be able to use public transport to visit our suppliers.

What we learnt

  • A big takeaway from this project is the necessity for designers to remain open to new systems and processes. Our knowledge and understanding of alternative methods needs to evolve as we become less reliant on plastics.
  • It is important to remain transparent and honest about any processes being utilised. It is difficult for a start-up with limited resources to demand change from the industry, but as the brand grows so too does its influence. The team aren’t going to sell this product as a perfect solution, rather, as one they feel is better than the alternatives today.
  • If we need to take convenience away from consumers in one area, we need to improve the product experience in other ways. Sans- are replacing cheap plastic components with a good quality metal deodorant you want to keep for as long as possible.
  • Complexity means cost. Simple products are inherently tougher, lighter, cheaper, easier to disassemble and recycle.

Written by James Holt.

Feel free to contact James directly to find out more about the project and this approach to sustainable product development.





We are a small and dedicated team of multi-disciplinary digital and product designers, based in Clerkenwell, London.