Four Choices Just Aren’t Enough: One More Antipersprirant/Deodorant Redaction Circa 1574

Some months ago I redacted a recipe for what was termed “foul smelling sweat” in a 12th century medical text.  In addition to this recipe, I found six more in a cosmetics manual dated 1574.  So far I have redacted five of these recipes and have tested them to prove their effectiveness.  One of many projects I worked on this week is what might be an early form of stick deodorant.  The Ban roll-on company, which claims to have invented this concept in the 1890’s, has nothing on G. Marinello’s Gli Ornamente Delle Donna.  Here is the recipe which I made this week.

Ways that you may carefully remove the smell of armpits & things to induce you to smell good

In this remedy we describe crayons (pessaries?) useful to what we mentioned above; dilute white lead with rose water in which is also dissolved camphor. Make it into pastels, then cover them with leaves of roses & let dry in the shade; dissolve them each in rose water when ready to use.–Gli Ornamente Delle Donna, folio 297

This recipe has puzzled me for a while.  As you can see from my translation, I was initially unsure if this recipe was for crayons or for pessaries.  At first glance it looks like something I found in a 12th century text for feminine itching.  The 12th century recipe specifically says to make the mixture into pessaries, (i.e. vaginal suppositories).  The recipe mentioned above however, used a different word, which translated into crayons.  I suppose you could use this recipe for either purpose, but I personally do not recommend it for internal use.  

After my translation puzzle was solved it was time to figure out the ingredients.  I would never, never use white lead in anything due to its very poisonous side effects.  Camphor is a resinous tree sap and is still an ingredient used in modern medicine and cosmetics.  Those of you who have used Campho-phenique or Vick’s Vaporub have been introduced to camphor.  Rosewater is a pretty common, safe ingredient.  So what can we replace the white lead with?  I checked around in my natural foods section and read the ingredient list on the antipersprirant/deodorants, and did some amateur chemistry research.  Here is where I got the idea to use sodium tetraborate.  This is a naturally occurring mineral which waas first dicvoered in dry lake beds in Tibet.  It was imported to Arabia via the Silk Road and does appear in other cosmetic recipes from the 16th century and earlier.  The more familar name for this mineral is borax, possibly derived from its Arabic name, buraq.  I have also come across a very detailed entry in Garcia De la Orta’s Colloques on the Simples & Drugs of India, 16th century, which describes the mineral and its uses.  Among it’s many properties, borax is great for things like cleaning, laundry boosting, plus it is sometimes used as an anti-fungal foot soak, to make indelible ink, to cure snake skins, and to make caviar.  I though it might be worth a try as a replacement for the lead in our recipe, so here’s what i did.

I took 2 tblsps. of camphor (crystalized and available by the pound at and dissolved it in two tbsps. of rosewater.  You do not want to try this with regular water, because camphor needs something a bit astringent in order to dissolve.  Next I added 2 tblsps. of borax (20 Mule Team Borax, which you can find in the laundry aisle, is 100% sodium tetraborate.  Please check the label if you buy another brand).  This gave me a thick, moldable paste.  I molded this paste into sticks and put on my hobby room shelf to dry overnight.  The next morning i hard five white sticks–which were firmly stuck to the dish.  So I crumbled them up and re-wet them but I placed each stick on an oak leaf, foraged from the alley behind my house.  This time they dried into sticks which did not stick to the pan or the leaf.  For those who want to try this at home, i recommend spraying your dish with a bit of cooking spray or try drying them on leaves so you don’t have to scrape the crusty mess off the pan. 

Once i had sticks, I could test them.  Just like my previous antiperspirant tests, i replaced my commerical stuff with this recipe and tracked it for one week.  To use these, you have to dip (just a bit of water because borax dissolves pretty easily in it) and smear the softened paste to your underarm.  The camphor is going to give you a mild cooling sensation, so don’t panic; that what’s it’s supposed to do.  I was sold on this from day one.  My underarms stayed dry and free of unpleasant odor for almost 24 hours.  I could go to the gym and workout, lift heavy things at the warehouse,  or just sit at my desk and type and I still stayed dry all day.  My only real complaint is that the crayons get a bit crumbly after a few uses.  This might be easily fixed by adding a binder, such a arabic gum powder (3/4 tsp in this case) to mix mixture before you mold them.  Of all the recipes I have found for this problem, this one is the most effective.  The bilberry & wine solution from the 12th century is a close second and the three others from Gli Ornamente Delle Donna are each effective, though in different ways.  You can find more details on those in my previous posts. I however, will be making this up again and probably relying on it for my future reenactment needs.  I also plan on making a few samples and taking them with me to A Grand Day of Tournaments in the Barony of Cynabar on November 16th.

A note–in 2010 the EU required that products which contain borax carry the warning label “may damage fertility” or “may damage the unborn child”.  However most people have to be exposed to a huge qunatity of borax before they experience side effects.  Also, the most harm seems to come from ingesting it, so please don’t eat this recipe.


G. Marinello.Gli Ornamente Delle Donna. Venice;1574.



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            Green, Monica L., editor & translator.  The Trotula: an English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s       Medicine. University of Pennsylvania Press; Philadelphia, 2002.

Orta, Garcia de La.  Colloques on the Simples & Drugs of India (16th century): new edition translated and published in Lisbon: 1895.  Sir Clements Markham, trans.


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  1. Trackback: Recipe Trials – Ice and Fire Works

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