Sweat. Just the word itself can practically make you start perspiring. If you’ve ever worried about a T-shirt sticking to your lower back, a damp palm during a handshake or felt embarrassed by underarm stains on your clothing, you know exactly what we’re talking about. But the truth is, in most cases sweat is normal and healthy. Wondering why we sweat? It’s to regulate normal body temperature, since sweating allows for body heat to be dissipated.
“Sweating is a physiologic process of the human body that is essential to the homeostasis of maintaining healthy function of all the organs,” explains Bloomfield Hills, MI dermatologist Linda C. Honet, MD. “The skin is the largest organ of the body and its primary function is to protect and contain all the rest of the organs beneath it. It does so remarkably efficiently, but it has a very unique function of thermoregulation to maintain our temperature at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, says Dr. Honet. “One very essential part of thermoregulation by the skin is sweating.”
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Dr. Honet explains that most of our bodily functions and processes release heat internally and sweating on the surface of the skin is triggered to dissipate this heat. When we sweat, our sweat glands, or eccrine glands. all over our body and apocrine glands (found in our hair-bearing areas) are recruited. The eccrine glands create a clear liquid made up of mostly water and tiny amounts of salt, sugar, fat, protein, urea and ammonia. Sweating is the simple process of evaporation, allowing the internal body heat to be wicked away from the surface of our skin. There are other reasons we sweat, but thermoregulation is the main function.
When it comes to sweat, plenty of myths abound. To help you know what’s real and what’s wrong, we turned to the experts to get to the bottom of it.
Myth 1: Everyone sweats the same amount.
Just like everything else about the human body, we’re all unique. That means everyone sweats at different levels. “Most of it is determined by genetics,” says Washington D.C. dermatologist Tina Alster, MD. However, there are other factors beyond your DNA. Disease states, chronic medical conditions or infections like thyroid disease or tuberculosis can affect increased sweating. Additionally, hormones, circadian rhythms, sleep cycles, medications, physical activity, stress and stressors all have a tremendous impact on sweating. Certain areas sweat more, like the armpits, face, scalp, hands and feet.
Myth 2: Most people only sweat minimally.
The average human can sweat over 10 quarts of liquid per day at maximal exercise and activity, adding up to 2.5 gallons. “No wonder Americans are obsessed about hydration,” Dr. Honet says. “But on an average day of normal activity, about a quart of sweat is created and evaporates off imperceptibly. There are numerous factors and great variability that can determine when and how much a person may sweat. Very generally speaking, men often sweat more than women,” notes the doctor.
Myth 3: Sweat stinks.
Sweat itself won’t make you smelly. “Sweat only smells when it’s combined with bacteria on the surface of the skin,” Dr. Alster says. An odor can occur when sweat from both the eccrine and apocrine glands of the skin mix with one’s skin flora or normal bacteria. Diet and our unique pheromones can also impact the scent.
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Myth 4: The amount you sweat during a workout is indicative of how effective it is.
This one isn’t so cut and dry. “The amount of sweat is often loosely but directly proportional to the magnitude of the exercise, because the muscles and body are being worked out and emitting heat,” Dr. Honet says. “However, there is huge variability in sweating depending on individual inherent, genetic and biologic factors. Also, the temperature of the exercise room can affect the amount of sweat tremendously—therefore the concept of hot yoga—but may not be the healthiest or most ideal for everyone. Ambient humidity will also affect the amount of sweat during a workout.”
Myth 5: You can significantly reduce sweat levels safely.
Several treatments can help minimize the amount we sweat, including over-the-counter and prescription topical antiperspirants, neurotoxin injections like Botox Cosmetics under the arms, and oral medications. “However, we actually need to sweat, at least at a baseline level and perhaps usually imperceptibly, to maintain a normal body temperature,” Dr. Honet says. “The danger in excessively decreasing the amount we sweat is that our core body temperature could rise to dangerous levels, resulting in overheating and heatstroke. This is especially dangerous in a dry, hot climate, extremes of age, with excessive exercise or overexertion, or taking an oral medication that decreases general sweating.”
Myth 6: In-office procedures can’t help with excessive sweating.
“Neuromodulators like Botox Cosmetic and others work by blocking the release of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine to stop the release of sweat from the glands,” Dr. Honet says. “The effect may last from four to six months and is approved by the FDA for the treatment of sweating in the armpits. It is also often covered by medical insurance. It can be used off-label for palms and soles as well, but the pain of the numerous injections can be prohibitive.” Another cosmetic, in-office treatment option is Miradry, which permanently destroys sweat glands in the armpits. “It does so through thermal destruction in the form of electromagnetic energy delivered to the targeted sweat glands,” Dr. Honet says.
Myth 7: Sweat can stain clothing.
Similar to how perspiration itself doesn’t smell, it’s when sweat mingles with bacteria that it can stain your clothing. “Sweat is clear,” Dr. Alster says. “It is the bacteria or may even be something in the clothing itself that could be causing the discoloration.” The combination of sweat and antiperspirant can also lead to discolored clothing, ranging from yellow to brown tones. According to Dr. Honet, the key to preventing stains from setting in is by not allowing the sweat to dry and become encrusted into the fabric. Also, there are unique laundering agents, usually enzyme-based, that are effective in getting sweat stains out.
Myth 8: You can sweat out toxins.
“You’re just sweating—not eliminating toxins,” Dr. Alster says. “You’re getting rid of all the things that your body doesn’t need through your liver and your kidneys. Those are the great filters and detoxifiers.”
Myth 9: You can sweat off weight.
You might expel some water weight via sweat, which is just temporary, so this isn’t real weight loss. “When you sweat, you’re losing water,” Dr. Alster says. “You’re not melting off pounds.” Sweating off weight can mean significant fluid loss, which translates to dehydration, so it’s not a healthy, recommended option.
Myth 10: Sweat causes breakouts.
Technically, perspiration alone isn’t responsible for bacne or breakouts. “It’s the sweat combined with bacteria and oil that blocks your pores,” Dr. Alster says. “Even if you wipe it off without rinsing it off, your pores get clogged with bacteria and the oil and the sweat altogether.” To ban breakouts after a sweat sesh, take a shower right away, preferably with one spiked with pore-purging ingredients.
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