As a former dance major who grew up in an ‘antiperspirant-free’ household, Saqera Kokayi has a special kind of relationship to natural deodorants. After leaving her corporate NYC career in the dust and moving to Berlin, she had a revelation that led her to redeem her former pubescent, sweaty, dancing self, and create a product that not only looks great and smells divine—but guess what, it also works!
We were invited into the Brooklyn native’s apartment in Kreuzberg, which currently serves as an office and production facility as well, to learn about her troubled relationship with foul-fruit-smelling deos, the connection between conventional deodorants and Alzheimer’s, as well as her path to building her own natural cosmetics business.
In 2013, you left your busy NYC career to travel, which eventually brought you to Berlin. What were you doing before?
I used to work at a French investment bank and my main role was business and management. I did business and management consulting, so in a nutshell that means I worked with different areas of the operations and tech department and helped them improve their business lines in a quantitative, qualitative way.
So, a VERY different kind of job than this?
[Laughter] Yes, very different… very, very different!
Deodorants may be seen as ‘unglamorous’—they’re a necessity to keep us from stinking. Was there a specific experience that led you to making deodorants?
When I came to Berlin I made a conscious decision to do something creative, and different from the kind of work that I was doing before. I had noticed this deodorant cream that was coming up in Brooklyn (where I’m from) and I looked at it and thought, ‘Oh my god, I already know how to do this, and this is imported all the way from Brooklyn, that’s crazy!’. At the time I had started doing vegan pop-up dinners because I really like cooking, and it was sort of the same thing—kitchen, alchemy… Simultaneously I had started making my own products; shampoo from clay and my own skin products, because after moving here, my skin got really dry, so I was just trying different things out.
I was putting together a business plan for doing food events and consulting, and one of the things that came out of that, was looking into the health issues of the German population. A few key issues that really stood out were heart and lung disease, as well as Alzheimer’s and dementia. I was waiting at a local pharmacy while reading about this, and it just hit me—dementia!—deo! It clicked.
At the time I had already started making deodorant creams for myself, and I realized ‘I want to do this instead!’. While I was sitting there, waiting for some Chinese herbal remedies to be made into tablets, it all just happened. I started writing a business plan immediately, to get a better idea of what the venture could look like. I started with a very general plan, and went through many iterations. M-A-N-Y iterations!
My boyfriend was very supportive and volunteered as my Guinea pig. I also started giving out samples to all of my friends to try it out and tell me what they thought. For the first couple of versions, I used a red clay, which produced a strange brown colored cream. I had one friend who was especially skeptical, like ‘What ISSSS this???’. I think that when it comes to anything related to hygiene, brown for something clean is not very intuitive, so I switched to a white clay in the end, and that was good.
I had already started making deodorant creams for myself, and I realized ‘I want to do this instead!’. While I was sitting there, waiting for some Chinese herbal remedies to be made into tablets, it all just happened. I started writing a business plan immediately…
Many of us may not be thinking to question what goes into our deodorants. What is the most surprising or shocking thing that can be found in common deodorants?
It has to be the different aluminum compounds. There’s been some awareness around this lately, so I’m not sure if it’s a surprise anymore, but what they do to our bodies may still come as a surprise. In addition, the parabens and of course, the ‘fragrance’ or perfume, which are these ‘nice sounding things’ that in reality are total ‘cancer cocktails’ and completely unnecessary—especially when we have essential oils, which are so much better. Perfumes are just a lot cheaper, and therefore more widely used.
Aluminum compounds have this ‘black eye effect’, meaning if you get punched in the eye, it swells shut, preventing you from opening your eye and seeing the world, right? When you put aluminum on your pores, it reacts with the electrolytes in our skin and makes the pore swell shut by forming a gel barrier. This barrier prevents anything from coming out, and all the stuff that needs to get flushed out of our bodies, like the salts, water and protein, gets trapped in the lymphs around the breast tissue. The whole point of the lymph system is to facilitate stuff to be moved out of our bodies.
One thing that I found surprising—yet not that surprising when you think about it—was that in biopsies done of female breast tissue, it showed that women had more aluminum in the left tissue, because most people are right handed, and therefore tend to be heavier handed with the left under arm.
Aluminum is also the only metal that is not used by the body in any natural way, so it gets lodged in the grey matter in our bodies, which is basically what the brain is made up of. The aluminum starts to make holes in this tissue, which eventually leads to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It also causes nervous and neurological disorders, ADHD, epilepsy and anything where the nerves are concerned. Because it’s something that we apply EVERY SINGLE DAY, you can only imagine how long it takes for it to cycle back out. By the time we reach old age, it will have built up so much over the years, it will never come out. The more I started linking this, the more I started seeing what a huge issue this is, and one that people are not aware of. We hear of so many things that are not good for us these days, we’re constantly bombarded with message to ‘do this’ and ‘don’t do that’, it’s easy to get desensitized. But it helps to know what’s happening and why; why something is good and why other things are bad.
It’s nice to offer an effective alternative!
When I was younger, my mother would not let me use antiperspirants, and as a dance major in middle school, this was hell! [haha]. My options were Jason’s and Tom’s of Maine, and these did not work—they did NOT work at all! As a pubescent, sweaty, dancing teenager, it was not only embarrassing, it was social suicide. As I was developing my deodorant I felt like I was coming into gold in a way. If only I could have been there for my teenage self! I was really struggling. But better late than never.
I have the same experience with those brands after moving to Vancouver and getting introduced to more natural cosmetics. They make you stink worse than using nothing at all. I still have nightmares about the apricot-scented deodorant.
Yeah, I remember using the apricot one too! Eeeeewww, funky apricot—nobody wants to smell like that!
When I was younger, my mother would not let me use antiperspirants, and as a dance major in middle school, this was hell! […] As a pubescent, sweaty, dancing teenager, it was not only embarrassing, it was social suicide.
As a product that’s seen as necessity for most of us, one of our first demands is that it works. What are the ingredient in your deodorants that make them work, and how are they different from the ingredients found in commercial brands?
It’s a symphony of things. You have sweat and you have ‘funk’. For sweating, the main ingredient I use to counter that is tapioca starch. Different starches may be used, but I think tapioca is one of the best because of the shape of its grains.
In addition to being widely genetically modified, many people have corn allergies, so I stay away from that. In addition, the microscopic shape of corn starch—if I may ‘nerd out’ for a second—is a bit more jagged, so it doesn’t have the same smooth feeling as tapioca or arrowroot. The latter is not widely available here, so I use tapioca, which has more pearl like grains, giving you a smoother feeling, which I prefer. The starch is what absorbs the moisture and keeps you dry.
For odor, I use a few different things. What causes odor are the bacteria that come to feed on the proteins, water and salts from our pores. Coconut oil is antibacterial and is one of my main ingredients. Secondly, I use essential oils such as peppermint and lavender, which are both great antibacterial oils. Lastly, I use baking soda, which is a salt. If you think about how we salt food, we do that to keep bacteria out, because they don’t thrive in a salty environment. So, that’s how it goes!
I’m sure you run into your fair share of skeptics, who worry that natural deodorant won’t work as well as the chemical laden ones?
Of course! I see that when I’m selling my product at markets. Sometimes the first question is, ‘does it work?’, which to me is always a bit funny. I guess people don’t assume that I’m the one making it. I say, ‘I wouldn’t sell it if it didn’t work. I’m the one making it, and I use it, and I’ve had really good feedback’. Yes, people are skeptical, and rightfully so. I have been victim to the ‘non working natural deo’ myself, so I understand why.
Your deodorants come as a nice, soft cream in a beautiful glass jar. They feel more like a beauty product, and perhaps more luxurious than their utilitarian deo-stick counterparts.
I think it’s mixed bag. You have some people who have no desire to touch their own arm pits, and want nothing to do with them. Culturally, we’re told to stay away. We wax or shave our armpits, we spray or roll on deodorant, but we don’t really touch them. Perhaps your lymphs are swollen and you don’t even know it, because you’re not in touch with that part of your body. Some people prefer no involvement, and I get it. But I’ve also had people say that using a cream and rubbing it in, makes it feels like you’re doing something good to yourself—and that’s luxurious.
You have some people who have no desire to touch their own arm pits, and want nothing to do with them. Culturally, we’re told to stay away. […] But I’ve also had people say that using a cream and rubbing it in, makes it feels like you’re doing something good to yourself—and that’s luxurious.
Who are your main customers? Are you seeing a pattern?
It’s mostly women, which is not surprising. All though I work my hardest to make my product gender neutral. I’ve had some people tell me I should make a product for men, but what does that even mean?
This is also my own politics, but I don’t want to gender something that doesn’t need a gender. It’s just deodorant, and everybody stinks!
Isn’t it funny that whenever you’re in the men’s beauty isle, most of the products come in brown, dark blue or black packaging, and often have little symbols of men jogging or doing something physical?
Yeah, there’s no need for that. I also think of people who are more gender queer, who don’t really fall into these categories. One of my favorite scents has always been Old Spice, which is for men. Am I not supposed to wear it because it’s a men’s scent? That’s crazy!
I love the scents that my male friends use, but we’re so conditioned into categorizing scents into male and female. I think it’s silly. I don’t care about these things, and I don’t want to make products based on gender.
Along with the zero waste movement growing, and people becoming more conscious about what they put on their bodies as well as into it, more people are starting to experiment with making their own products and also their own deodorants. Do you think this is a positive or a negative thing for you?
I think it’s fantastic. I’ve told people that I want to put myself out of business. There’s so many other things I can do. I think it’s great that people are taking initiative and reclaiming their own health and bodies. We give the authorities too much power, and often they don’t have our best interest in mind.
I don’t think you need to worry. There’s always going to be more people who are too busy or just find it more convenient to buy a finished product. There’s also a limit to the amount of DIY’ing a person can do, not to mention the work that goes into sourcing the more special ingredients.
Yes, it’s been absolutely crazy to source everything! That was definitely uncharted territory for me. In the US we have an abundance of these ingredients easily available, but here, not so much. I spent months finding the right suppliers, that offer organic products, in sensible quantities. As a small batch company, I can’t buy products by the metric tonne. It was all worth it in the end though, especially when I get such good feedback. That’s what keeps me going!
I don’t want to gender something that doesn’t need a gender. It’s just deodorant, and everybody stinks!
If you were to put yourself out of business, do you have any other plans or products in mind?
Yeah, I do! I would like to develop a lip balm. I‘ve been making one for myself for the last years. But like with a lot of things that I do for myself, I don’t really measure everything—I just add a little of this and a little of that, so I would have to reiterate and perfect the recipe.
When it comes to introducing a new product to the market, there’s so many hurdles to work through, so when I think of creating new products, I’m like [breathes deep] ‘are we ready for this?’.
I’ve been thinking about what direction to take Eskay. Do I want to work on odors only? Will I do air fresheners next? [laughter] Or will I go onto developing my body butters or my lip balm? This is the nice thing about having my own company, I can steer it wherever I want. Lately I’ve been liking the idea of hygiene products, so maybe a wooden, biodegradable toothbrush is next? I’ve made my own toothpaste before too, but I haven’t perfected it. I really like this idea of creating products for the full morning ritual.
We’re equally excited to see what other treasures comes out of Eskay in the next months and years, and we’re confident they’ll be amazing. Both my photographer and I went home with a handful of deodorant creams each and are in love!