The human body is an amazing thing; it can grow new cells to heal injuries and can fight off infection. And the body even has its own built-in cooling system for when it’s in danger of overheating: sweat.
Sweating is our built-in air conditioning unit, using moisture to cool the body very efficiently. Sweat often gets a bad rap for showing up when we’re trying to hide nerves or for smelling not-so-sweet, but without it we’d be in trouble. Besides regulating body temperature, sweat contains antibacterial properties that help protect our skin from infection.
Still, despite the benefits, whether you’re the one who is perspiring nervously before a meeting or the one who is catching a whiff of it, sweat is often an unwelcome presence outside of athletic circles. Here’s the lowdown on why we can’t live without it.
What is Sweat?
Sweat is mostly water and salt, put out by glands technically known as eccrine glands. Depending on how hydrated you are, your sweat will be more or less concentrated. If you continue sweating without replenishing liquids, your sweat becomes more and more salty. You may even have dried salt residue on your skin or clothes later when the water component has evaporated.
Why Do We Sweat?
We sweat for lots of reasons, from exertion to stress to medications and hormones, but cooling the body is at the top of the list. Each person has a different temperature baseline, so individuals get heated up enough to sweat more and less quickly. When we exercise, our working muscles produce heat, and we sweat to get rid of it. The harder you work, the more you will sweat. “People may sweat less than a liter, or up to several liters a day, based on what they're doing,” says Dr. Marie Jhin, a San Francisco Bay Area dermatologist and author of Asian Beauty Secrets.
In a hot climate, we may sweat to cool ourselves down, especially if we’re not acclimated to the heat.
“You can also sweat without exertion for reasons such as nervousness, excitement, or stress,” says Dr. Jhin. In addition, highly spicy foods can make you sweat, as well as some medications. And the changing levels of estrogen in a woman’s body at menopause can bring on sweat-producing hot flashes and night sweats. Some medications can also increase your heart rate and body temperature.
Stress can also produce sweat. Thinking about a first date? Presenting your project to management? Adrenaline starts flowing, preparing your body to do slightly scary things. So you start to sweat, which is a normal physical response. If, on the other hand, you have frequent mysterious sweats, you probably want to talk to your doctor about it.
Why Does Sweat Smell Bad?
Water and salt by themselves don’t have much of an aroma. However, when we sweat, another set of glands called the apocrine, or scent glands, come into play. These guys “are found next to your hair follicles and produce a milky fluid most commonly secreted when you’re under emotional stress,” says Dr. Jhin.
The odor problem arises when these two glandular liquids come into contact with bacteria already present on the skin. Apocrine glands are more plentiful in the armpits and groin, areas that get warm quickly. So the liquid leaves your body, hits bacteria, and turns more acidic, creating body odor. The medical term for “B-O” is bromhidrosis if you’d like to sound fancy discussing the issue.
Hands and feet are other places where apocrine glands are plentiful, which shouldn’t come as any surprise—feet are notorious for sweating and smelling, and moist palms are a frequent sign of nerves.
When is Sweating a Problem?
In most cases, sweating is mainly a problem if it stops. If you are in the heat or exercising and your body is not producing sweat, that’s a huge red flag. It’s a sign that your body isn’t cooling itself and you may be dehydrated. Once you stop sweating, you’re in danger of heat stroke and possibly organ failure. Seek medical attention.
Rarely, excessive sweating can be a condition known as hyperhidrosis. According to Dr. Jhin, “In hyperhidrosis, the body's cooling mechanism is so overactive that it produces four or five times the amount of sweat that you need. Excessive sweating is a problem if it affects your quality of life such as causing emotional/social distress, skin irritation from too much sweating, infections from the dampness, etc.”
If your sweat level makes you stand out in a crowd or you find yourself showering multiple times a day to deal with stickiness and odor, even in a mild climate, it may be time to consult your doctor. Hyperhidrosis can be treated with solutions ranging from prescription-strength antiperspirants to surgery to injections that calm sweat glands.
What Can I Do to Manage Sweat?
Whether you just glisten prettily or pour buckets of the stuff, everybody sweats. The key is in managing it.
If sweat and odor are an issue for you, here’s some tips to manage your sweat:
- Place a small fan in your work area if you have a tendency to feel warmer than others at work.
- Dress in layers so you can remove them to your comfort level.
- Look into clothes made from fabrics that have strong moisture-wicking properties. These hi-tech fabrics used to be just for athletic wear but now you can find undershirts, socks, and other items with the same materials.
- For emotion-related sweating, you can help quiet your sweat glands by learning how to calm and control your breathing or heart rate through meditation. Biofeedback is a technique where a therapist hooks you up to a monitor and you work to control your responses.
- Cut back on caffeine, which can stimulate sweat glands.
- For body odor control, avoid eating strong smelling foods such as garlic. The scent can come through in your sweat.
Sweat is your body’s natural cooling and protection system. Greet it as a friend, manage it, and it will treat you right.
Eliana Osborn is a writer and part-time English professor living in the Southwest. She writes about health and education issues for a wide variety of publications.