Is Sweating Good For You? Experts Weigh In
Plus, what to do if you feel like you sweat too much.
Humans are sweaty creatures—our armpits get moist, sweat may drip from our temples, or, if you believe Instagram, make our cheeks look dewy after a nice yoga session. And even if sometimes it's a bit annoying, let's get straight to the point: "Sweating is normal," dermatologist Beth Goldstein, MD, a dermatologist with Central Dermatology Center in North Carolina, tells Health.
But why exactly do we produce this often inconvenient and sometimes smelly moisture—and is perspiring good or bad for your health? We spoke to experts to find out more about what's behind perspiration and what you can do if your sweat levels feel excessive.
What exactly is sweat, anyway?
The fluid coming from your skin is actually pretty close to water, experts say. It also includes "a few other proteins and salts and other molecules—most noticeably sodium—which our body produces on almost all of our skin," explains Dr. Goldstein.
Depending on which sweat glands it comes from, the type of sweat can vary, Marisa Garshick, MD, a dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York City, tells Health. For instance, she tells Health that apocrine glands—typically located in the underarms and groin—produce a thicker liquid secretion.
And as you've likely observed, some people perspire more than others.
"There is variability in how much certain individuals sweat and this can be related to the number of sweat glands, exercise intensity, and sometimes weight," Dr. Garshick says.
Why do people sweat?
"Our body is comprised of numerous sweat glands, which respond to signals from our brain to release sweat," Dr. Garshick says.
There are two main perspiration triggers that cause this release.
First up: heat. Sweat acts as your body's cooling system. "The purpose of sweat is to help your body maintain a normal body temperature and cool you down when your body temperature goes up," Dr. Garshick says. Once your body releases sweat, it evaporates, which cools off your skin.
This is known as thermoregulatory sweating, and it often occurs in naturally hairy body parts (think: armpits), Dr. Goldstein says. Your body temperature can go up for a number of reasons: steamy temperatures outside, engaging in exercise, work, and even eating spicy foods, according to Dr. Garshick.
But there's another reason for sweat: Emotions.
This kind of sweating is more common in non-hairy spots on your body (such as your palms), Dr. Goldstein says. In our hunter-gatherer era as humans, this type of sweat would "facilitate grip...so that our ancestors could better run away from predators," she says. These days, we don't need to run barefoot from lions. But when we feel nervous—say, before a presentation at work or a confrontation—it can trigger signals that lead to getting sweaty.
"Our sweat response has been a bit misregulated through our evolutionary history, and when it comes to emotional sweating, we often sweat a lot more than is necessary or even useful," Dr. Goldstein points out.
What's with the smell?
Blame the stink on the bacteria that live on your skin, not the sweat.
"Sweat in itself is not particularly smelly," Dr. Goldstein says. "The majority of body odor and offensive smell comes from the excretions of bacteria that feed on sweat." It's a particular problem with the sweat in our pits, feet, and groin, which are enclosed because of either the natural folds of our body or our garments, she says.
Most likely, sweat that accumulates on your forehead or forearms won't have any odor.
Is sweating good for you?
Yes. In fact, without the ability to sweat, your body would be in trouble.
"If your body didn't have a mechanism to cool down or didn't sweat, it could put you at risk for overheating," Dr. Garshick says.
Sweat that helps regulate your body's temperature is "the key reason that humans can stay conscious and healthy in high-temperature environments," Dr. Goldstein points out. She explains that overheating is dangerous, which is why many sweat-related products are sweat-absorbing, not sweat-stopping.
Emotional sweating, on the other hand, doesn't really serve much of a purpose. That is, no good is served by dripping beads of sweat when you work up the nerve to ask someone out or gear up for public speaking.
Can you sweat too much?
Sweat may be essential to your body's health, but when it leads to rings on the underarms of every shirt or feeling soggy as you walk into a job interview, your body may be overdoing it.
"Most of us sweat more than is necessary, and some of us sweat way more than is necessary," Dr. Goldstein says.
About 5% of people sweat excessively, a condition known as hyperhidrosis, Dr. Garshick says. With primary hyperhidrosis, your sweat glands are overactive without a good cause—that is, you're not sweating due to a workout or rising mercury. Stress and nerves can heighten the symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.
But sometimes there's an inciting factor for hyperhidrosis, such as:
- Medical conditions. This includes infections, hyperthyroidism, some types of cancer, and anxiety.
- Medications. Everyday stimulants, such as coffee, can lead to perspiration. Meds taken for diabetes and pain can also cause sweating, along with hormonal meds such as birth control pills, Dr. Garshick says.
- Menopause. Hot flashes can occur due to changing hormones and trigger perspiration.
If you're sweating more than usual or your sweat is not prompted by a need for your body to cool down, reach out to your doctor. "There are multiple treatments available to target hyperhidrosis or sweating without any underlying cause," Dr. Garshick says. These treatment options include:
- Level up your antiperspirant. Try over-the-counter clinical-strength deodorant and antiperpirant options such as Certain Dri Prescription Strength Clinical, Dove Advanced Care Antiperspirant Deodorant Stick Cool Essentials, and Carpe Underarm Antiperspirant and Deodorant. Dr. Garshick recommends applying them at night when sweat glands aren't active or filled with sweat. That way, "the sweat ducts are able to absorb more of the aluminum and therefore be more effective," she says. Prescription-strength antiperspirants are also available.
- Botox injections. Injecting botulinum toxin stops sweat. "Although Botox has only been FDA approved for the treatment of underarm sweat, it is also being used in the hands, feet, and scalp to help prevent sweating in those areas," Dr. Garshick says. Note that these injections are a temporary solution, lasting for six to 12 months, per the Mayo Clinic.
- Lifestyle adjustments. Opting for light and breathable fabrics can sometimes help to reduce sweating according to Dr. Garshick. Tighter, synthetic-fabric clothing can trap heat.
- Surgery. For sweaty hands or underarms, surgery is an option. Doctors can remove sweat glands in the underarms, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Surgery on the hands is known as sympathectomy; it's a more involved procedure, where the nerves that control sweating are cut or destroyed, per the AAD.
Other treatment options include oral medication, prescription-strength topical wipes, prescription medications, and devices such as Miradry (a non-invasive system using electromagnetic energy to reduce sweating), and iontophoresis (a process that uses electrical currents to create better transdermal absorption of medication). Bottom line: "There are great options out there to help you stop the sweat," Dr. Goldstein says.
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