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“No one wants to talk about underarms,” Moiz Ali says to me cheerfully on the phone, after we’ve been talking about basically nothing but underarms for 30 minutes.
In the natural beauty industry, though, underarms are a hot (sorry) topic. The quest to make an effective so-called natural deodorant has proven to be difficult, though many have tried. From pioneering stalwarts like Tom’s of Maine to newer versions like the beloved Soapwalla cream, the almost-mainstream Schmidt’s, and the $19 Goop-favored Agent Nateur, entrepreneurs have been trying to crack the code on this category for a few decades now.
Ali thinks he has figured it out. He quietly launched Native Deodorant in July 2015 to little fanfare and with no marketing budget. The company is now beating sales projections by 50 percent each month, and it’s seeing half of its revenue come from repeat customers.
Ali isn’t quite like all the other natural beauty and personal care entrepreneurs out there. He’s a former lawyer who launched and successfully sold an online booze e-commerce startup called Caskers. He subsequently moved to San Francisco and managed to snag funding from both Jeffrey Hollender, a founder of natural product company Seventh Generation, and Azure Capital, which has funded online beauty company Julep. (He declines to say how much funding Native has received.)
Ali peppers his conversation with Silicon Valley-isms, but thankfully stops short of saying he is trying to “disrupt” deodorant. He says he did what pretty much everyone does when trying to learn about something new: he Googled it. He started reading about ingredients online and then tried his hand at formulating. The company is now on v24.0 since launch — yes, you read that correctly. Version 24.
“We’ve been iterating on our deodorant the same way other companies make software. I guess that’s part of being in San Francisco,” Ali says. “When customers buy our product, after they’ve had a chance to use it, we ask them for a review, and when they provide that, we start collating all that data and start making decisions about how to improve our formula. The formula you buy today is not the same we launched with in July 2015. We’ve improved it a bunch.” He says the brand has tried hundreds of different formulas that haven’t made it to market.
Those reviews, of which there are almost 2,000, average at just below five out of five stars. Customers seem to think the product is a savior, and often even evoke the Savior when talking about it. You can find comments like “This is not deodorant, this is a Jesus-scented magic stick which is amazing!” and “Thank you, Jesus, for bringing this product to me.” Comments like “I tried it for a few days and ended up stinking” (a not uncommon experience with natural deodorant) are few and far between.
Native comes in several permanent scents, as well as rotating seasonal ones like Oakmoss & Basil Leaf. The most popular scent is Coconut & Vanilla. The company currently only sells its product on its own website, and you can purchase deodorants one-off for $12 (mainstream antiperspirants typically cost $4 to $8 at drugstores). Or you can buy a subscription, which saves you about 17 percent. Ali notes, “The subscription is an opt-in, not an opt-out. We’re not trying to force our product down your throat.”
Ali says he was inspired by his own tendency to procrastinate when buying deodorant and wanted to offer people an option to not have to think about replenishment. You can set up the delivery intervals to be once a month to once every four months, depending on your preference. You can also choose different scents and cancel at any time. While retailers have been asking to stock Native, Ali wants to keep selling directly to customers because he doesn’t want to lose that direct feedback loop.
But why did Ali want to make natural deodorant, besides the fact that he’s a savvy entrepreneur who saw an opportunity in a space that’s desperate for a product that actually works? Ali cites “breast cancer risk” as his biggest impetus for wanting to find an alternative to commercial antiperspirants, which contain aluminum compounds; he says he was inspired by his sister, who got nervous about using mainstream deodorant during her pregnancy.
To define our terms, only a product that stops sweating can be called an antiperspirant, per FDA guidelines. Deodorants can only claim to stop odor. Odor is actually caused by bacteria on your body that start splashing around in your sweat, which is sterile and smells like nothing when it comes out of you. Most antiperspirants use aluminum compounds to temporarily clog sweat glands and prevent sweating.
Natural deodorants became popular because of scary viral emails from the early 2000s and articles that started popping up online claiming that aluminum causes breast cancer and Alzheimer’s. This belief has persisted despite the fact that the American Cancer Society, the Alzheimer’s Association, Cancer Research UK, and even the EU’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (the organization that has banned more than 10,000 personal care ingredients in the EU) have all proclaimed that there is no good evidence that the aluminum in antiperspirants causes either disease, both of which likely have complex and multifactorial origins.
Ali acknowledges that no one knows for sure that one causes the other, “but I subscribe to a philosophy of being safe rather than sorry,” he says. He also finds clogging up your sweat glands and preventing your body from performing a natural function weird, which I suppose is fair. He’s not alone in this precautionary thinking, which is why there’s a big market for natural products now.
About 90 percent of the customers that purchase Native are women, and about 80 percent of those are mothers. Ali says that these women purchase Native for the men in their lives, too. At this point, women overwhelmingly want natural products as compared to men, and so women will likely continue to be the main drivers of sales in this category. (To be a little bit cynical here, male Silicon Valley founders and investors clearly understand sweat, if not the rest of the typically women-focused beauty industry. Schmidt’s, a female-founded natural deodorant brand that will likely be one of Native’s biggest competitors going forward, has a male investing partner now, too.)
Native is formulated with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and arrowroot powder, both of which provide wetness absorption, as well as several different oils, including the now-ubiquitous coconut oil. It also contains less natural-sounding ingredients like capric triglyceride, which is a skin conditioner, and stearyl alcohol, which is generally used as a product stabilizer. It comes in white solid stick form, which already puts it ahead of its mushier, creamier competitors. The biggest potential knock against the ingredient list here is that baking soda is a known skin irritant for a lot of people.
The packaging is gender-neutral and features a clean font on an all-white background, much like another Silicon Valley favorite. “The packaging we’re going for is inspired by Apple — very clean lines and minimalistic features. We’re not trying to be loud,” Ali says.
Native has used Facebook advertising to get the word out, and has sent product to YouTube and Instagram influencers hoping for reviews. The company has received about a dozen, including mixed ones like this from YouTuber Rebecca Reviews, who had an issue with irritation after a few weeks of use. “We’re still a really small business and we’re trying to figure out how to handle 2017, but we’re really excited about it,” Ali says of raising Native’s profile.
I generally run sweaty and am not afraid of chemicals, hence my devotion to Secret’s clinical strength products. I’ve had no desire to switch to natural deodorants, though I’ve tried them here and there. To really give Native a fair shake, I rotated between the Lavender & Rose scent, a classic “natural” smell, and Oakmoss & Basil Leaf, which smells like how I imagine Colin Farrell smells (sexy soap) for a solid week. And I didn’t hate it!
It actually stood up pretty well to Soulcycle, extreme temperature changes, outerwear, hot sweaters, and stress. Did I sweat? Yeah. Did I stink? No, weirdly. And I didn’t feel disgusting at the end of the day, which has generally been my experience with other natural deodorants. So while it isn’t as good as a traditional antiperspirant, it also isn’t terrible.
Just like in the mainstream deodorant category, there is surely room for a few contenders in natural. “It’s a very unsexy product,” Ali says. “But we love being manically driven about a product that hasn’t been iterated on for decades.”