Everything You Need To Know (But Were Afraid To Ask) About Sweat

It's not all about the armpits, people.

28/09/2016 8:20 AM AEST | Updated 29/09/2016 4:48 PM AEST
Henrik Sorensen
Don't sweat it.

You've kicked off your day with a hefty workout at the gym.You're dripping. You're walking into a meeting at work -- aaand you notice a few inconvenient patches. To top if off, you're nervous and you've got that sweaty hands thing going on.

Sweating. We all do it. And we all need it.

But there's a lot more to know about this vital, inconvenient and uncomfortable (at the best of times) human function called sweat.

Understanding sweat

First, to the basics. Sweat is our body's way of regulating heat and maintaining its core temperature.

"As warm-blooded mammals, we have a range of systems in place to keep it within that narrow range that sits around 37 degrees," dermatologist Professor Rodney Sinclair told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Perspiration leads to secretion of salt and water onto the surface of the skin. As it evaporates, it cools the skin."

So, how does this work?

PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou
It starts with a trickle.

Distributed across our bodies are approximately two to four million sweat glands that kick into action when the body is at risk of overheating. They are activated in response to a range of stimuli -- from messages to the brain indicating the body is hot, to physical activity, hormones and emotional triggers.

The lesser-known fact? There are different kinds of sweat glands.

"Eccrine glands are found all over the body and they are the main ones that produce a large volume of sweat," Sinclair explains.

"Apocrine glands are localised in the groin and armpits and produce both fluid and odour." (Otherwise known as BO).

Herein lies one of the most popular myths surrounding sweat: it does not stink. The source of any potent smells is the bacteria on our skin that fluid (released from the apocrine gland) comes into contact with.

Do some people sweat more than others?

The short answer? Yes.

Professor Sinclair refers to a "normal distribution curve" when it comes to surveying sweat -- with the road trickier for those on either ends of the spectrum.

"There are some disorders where you don't sweat at all, which leads to major problems with overheating and temperature regulation.

"Some people sweat excessively to the point of becoming dehydrated."

Excessive sweating (or hyperhidrosis) is a reality for approximately 3 percent of the population.

"It can be debilitating...There are people who sweat on certain parts of their body that it impairs their function -- or their career," Sinclair said.

Vladimir Serov
The old tale of a nurse wiping a surgeon's brow is not far from reality for some.

"If you sweat a lot on your hands, you might not be able to hold a pen. If you sweat a lot on your feet, that can cause maceration or an inability to wear footwear."

It is at this point that he recommends seeking treatment (more on that, later).

What can we do about it?

It all depends on your level of sweatiness and how it is impacting your lifestyle.

For average sweaters:

For starters, a good roll-on or spray antiperspirant is your lifeline for all but the most severe sweaters.

"Antiperspirants contains aluminium chloride (or a derivative of that) that inhibits the secretion of sweat from the gland.

"There is certainly a difference between them and a deodorant spray that is purely fragrant and is there to disguise your scent, so be wary."

Here's the big catch: antiperspirants can be used all over your body.

"The first thing that most people don't realise is that there is nothing magical about the armpit! Why would an antiperspirant only work on your armpits and not anywhere else?

"Your simple supermarket brand can actually be used everywhere -- on the back of your neck or back or your forehead. But be wary of irritation as some parts of the skin are more sensitive than others."

Guido Mieth
Embrace the sweat.

Concerned about your next workout? Minimising sweat can start with choosing absorbent clothing and footwear.

"Singlets -- as an absorbent layer of fabric -- used to be almost universal among men, but they are less commonly worn with the rise of effective antiperspirants. People who sweat a lot on their upper body may want to think about wearing them."

When it comes to footwear, consider cotton socks or odour-eating insoles.

For excessive sweaters:

The good news is that there is a widespread range of treatment options on offer for those plagued by severe sweating -- from stronger, pharmacy-bought antiperspirants to Botox injections.

"There are tablets that we use, called anticholinergics drugs, that block the nerve supply to the sweat gland. The downside is they dry up other secretions -- people may experience symptoms such as dry mouth or dry eyes -- so we only have a narrow window for that correct therapeutic dose."

Other specialist treatments involve 'injectable botulinum toxin muscle relaxants' (otherwise known as Botox) which serves to reduce the stimulation of sweat glands.

"One single injection can last for up to six to 12 months to the point where people do not need to use any form of antiperspirant," he said.

We've talked more about excessive sweating treatment options here.

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