Sweating It Out
When I'm out running early in the morning, I love the way I get all sweaty. My armpits, my face, my whole body. It's proof positive that I've got my heart rate up and I'm doing something good for myself. Who cares if my sports bra is sopping wet? Isn't that what it's made for?
Then there's the sweating-at-my-computer or pitted-out-at-parties perspiration that has nothing to do with exercise. Through the years, I've gone to great lengths to cover up these sweat rings. I've banned pastels and silk from my wardrobe. (Darker colors and heavier fabrics conceal better.) I've parted with cashmere. (It's too expensive to ruin so quickly.) My all-time low: In high school, wearing a 1960s contraption that consisted of two pieces of cloth under my armpits held up by an elastic band around my chest. (It had been my mom's. I've since learned that heavy sweating is usually genetic.)
I'm not the only woman who perspires profusely. U.S. Women's National Soccer Team player Abby Wambach told FITNESS she sweats three liters per game. Then again, she's scoring goals for gold, while I'm just trying to survive a barbecue without sweat rings. But even this kind of sweat is common. A recent study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that almost eight million people suffer from excessive sweating, that it affects men and women equally and that the most common trigger for sweating is stress and anxiety, not a tough game on the soccer field. Here, the sticky truth about sweating.
Q: Why do we sweat?
A: When your body gets too hot from a steamy August day or killer cardio class, its thermoregulating AC system kicks in. The sweat ducts near your skin's surface are stimulated, prompting your cells to release a fluid consisting mostly of water but also sodium, chloride, and potassium. The more your sweat ducts are stimulated, the more likely the fluid will be secreted through your skin to keep your body at its happy 98.6 degrees.
Q: Why does being at work trigger sweat?
A: Exercise and heat are two common reasons why we perspire, but another, less-recognized reason is stress. Anxiety sweat happens when our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode, a biological response that's been with us since our earliest ancestors. For cavewomen, the intrusion of a saber-toothed tiger triggered understandable anxiety. "Their hearts started beating faster to pump blood to their major muscle groups to get them moving, their respiration increased to send oxygen to these muscles, their pupils dilated so they could see better, and they might have even vomited to get everything unnecessary out of their bodies to increase speed," says Autumn Braddock, PhD, codirector of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. All of this activity generated a lot of internal heat, resulting in a spike in sweat. "Another theory is that we increase sweat production when we're anxious so our skin will become slippery, making it more difficult for predators to hold on and catch us," Braddock says. A handy trick for our ancestors, but today, not so much.
Q: Why does sweat stink?
A: "There are two kinds of sweat glands in your armpits," says David Pariser, MD, a professor of dermatology at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. "One makes water, and the other makes an oily substance that produces an odor." One positive perspiration point: For some reason, most people who suffer from overproductive water sweat glands don't have overproductive oil sweat glands. (Whew!) As for stinky feet, Dr. Pariser says there are no odor glands on the foot. "The smell is coming from your feet being covered in socks and shoes, which create a warm, dark, breeding ground for smell-inducing bacteria," he says. For sweeter feet, take your shoes and socks off as much as you can. Your feet will be drier and thus less likely to cause odor. Just make sure that you rinse off your feet before you put on shoes. Walking barefoot, even at home, can cause you to pick up potentially stenchy bacteria that won't do you any favors once cozied up in your shoes.
Q: Does sweat have a connection to calories burned?
A: Indirectly, yes, says Steven Cohen, MD, a dermatologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. If you always run the same two-mile loop in your neighborhood, your body doesn't have to work as hard as it did when you first started doing the run, which means you burn fewer calories. The same theory applies to sweat: Your body has gotten used to accommodating the heat you generate on the run and is better at controlling it, so it produces less perspiration. Bottom line: To maximize your calorie burn, vary your workouts.
Q: Is there any natural way to reduce anxiety sweat?
A: If anxiety about sweating through your clothes is triggering you to perspire more, try to de-catastrophize the idea of sweat. "Stop thinking about sweat as the enemy, as something to fear," says Braddock. "Ask yourself, What would happen if someone saw me sweating? Would it be as horrible as I think?" As with other social anxieties, such as shyness, people don't notice your perspiration nearly as much as you think they do, she says. Braddock has a point. During a friend's wedding several years ago, I soaked through my pale pink bridesmaid dress while she said her I do's. She swore she never noticed my sweat rings — even when later looking through her photos.
At the same time, I sweat less now than I did in my 20s. Back then, I used to go to the bathroom at parties every 20 minutes to stuff toilet paper in my armpits. Now at events, I use the ladies' room mostly for its intended purpose (to reapply lipstick). My armpits haven't changed; I have, which makes what Braddock says ring true: When you finally stop caring if people notice that you've soaked the underarms of your shirt, you'll sweat less.
The Best Sweat Solutions
The best sweat stopper if...
...you don't perspire that much.
You probably could get away with a deodorant, which masks smell and doesn't control wetness, but most experts suggest using an antiperspirant/deodorant combo to also keep you dry.
Try: Soft & Dry Conditioning Silk Invisible Solid, Touch of Aloe, $2.49, drugstores; Suave Naturals Invisible Solid, Tropical Paradise, $1.79, drugstores
...you sweat through all your shirts.
Choose an antiperspirant/deodorant that contains aluminum chloride, the gold-standard dryness ingredient because it forms plugs in your sweat ducts. Apply the product before bed. You don't sweat as much at night, so it can better form plugs then. (Use a regular antiperspirant/deodorant in the morning.) Aluminum chloride can cause red, irritated skin, but there's less chance of the side effects if you use it at night.
Try: Secret Clinical Strength
Anti-Perspirant/Deodorant, $9.99, drugstore.com. Although its active ingredient is a cousin to aluminum chloride (aluminum zirconium trichlorohydrex), it contains more of it than other products and is said to cause less irritation. Certain Dri Anti-Perspirant, $5.50, drugstore.com. The strongest OTC antiperspirant, it provides about half the strength of a prescription one.
Drysol. Keeps you sweat-free with the highest amount of aluminum chloride. Prescription only.
...you're sick of white stains on your clothes.
Try: Dove Ultimate Clear, $3.99, drugstores; Dry Idea Clear Gel Anti-Perspirant & Deodorant, $3.29, drugstores
...you want something for your stinky ballet flats.
Slip disposable, thin, sweet-smelling foot pads into your shoes to prevent icky foot odor.
Try: Kiwi Fresh'ins, $4.99 for 6 pairs, drugstores
Need Serious Help?
In doctor-speak, excessive sweating is known as hyperhidrosis and is defined as sweating six times more than the average person. If your perspiration interferes with your life (say, you wear panty liners under your arms to soak up sweat), your MD will likely diagnose you with the condition.
After first trying a prescription-strength antiperspirant, the next level of treatment is Botox injections. While not pain-free, experts say most patients report that the result — no sweat stains for about seven months or more — is worth it.
If you suffer from excessive hand or foot sweat, your dermatologist may suggest iontophoresis, a treatment in which you put your hands or feet in a device filled with water while mild electrical currents are sent through your skin's surface to block the flow of sweat. Doctors describe the currents as startling but not painful. If done consistently once or twice a week (you can do the procedure at home), the less-sweat effect can last indefinitely.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, August 2007.