Why does stress make us sweat?
LAST UPDATED: Feb 01, 2022
3 MIN READ
HERE'S WHAT WE'LL COVER
A few years ago, an antiperspirant ad hit the airwaves proclaiming that its product prevented “stress sweat,” a specific type of sweat that allegedly smelled worse than “ordinary” sweat. Was this a clever marketing tactic, or is stress sweat a real thing requiring different strategies? Let’s take a look.
Is stress sweat a real thing?
First thing’s first: Yes, stress sweat is real and it’s distinct from other types of sweat, like the kind induced by exercise. There’s a phenomenon called “psychological sweating” that happens in response to an emotional stimulus, like pain, anxiety, and, yes, stress (Harker, 2013). This kind of sweating can happen all over the body, but it primarily occurs on the scalp, groin, and underarms.
There’s a good reason stress sweat happens in these locations, specifically: These are the places on your body where specific sweat glands are located. There are actually three types of sweat glands in your body that are responsible for regulating your body temperature (Kobielak, 2015):
Eccrine sweat glands are found all over the body and are mainly responsible for secreting water and electrolytes through the surface of the skin.
Apocrine glands are found only in certain parts of the body containing hair (think: armpits, genitals, etc.).
Apoeccrine glands, which were only discovered in 1987, are essentially a mix between the two (Sato, 1987).
When it comes to stress sweat, apocrine glands are the ones mostly at play.
What causes stress sweat?
In short, apocrine sweat glands are responsible for stress sweat. Also known as odoriferous (as in, smelly) sweat glands, these large, branched glands are found in parts of the body with more hair follicles. While they’re present at birth, they don’t start secreting until a person has reached puberty. Unlike the watery substance secreted by eccrine glands, apocrine glands produce a thicker, lipid-rich sweat that contains proteins, sugars, and ammonia (Baker, 2019). It’s believed that when this stress sweat from the apocrine glands mixes with bacteria on the skin, body odor occurs (Lam, 2018).
The reason stress sweat occurs in the first place is a physiological response known as “fight or flight.” This refers to the series of immediate changes that take place in your brain and body when an acute physical or psychological stressor is present. The fight or flight response is an important tool for survival—it can help you outrun an attacker or motivate you to perform well under pressure.
But all the effects that go along with the fight or flight response, including an increased heart rate and a surge in stress hormones, can have other effects, like sweating across the whole body that’s more pronounced in the underarms, groin, and scalp—that’s stress sweat.
Sweat in those areas tends to smell worse because its chemical composition is different from the sweat produced by eccrine glands—it contains proteins and fats, as opposed to mostly water. When people become self-conscious about the way they smell and whether others can perceive it, their anxiety can result in even more stress sweating, which escalates the problem (Harker, 2013).
So why does stress sweat happen?
There are various reasons why someone might start perspiring in certain situations. Whether it’s a job interview or first date, stress prompts hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to flood the body, and apocrine glands respond quickly, releasing thick, odorous sweat. People can tell the difference, too—when research participants smell sweat samples from stressed individuals, they’ve been able to discriminate between emotions more accurately and even demonstrate enhanced attention (Rubin, 2012; Chen, 2006).
How to control and prevent stress sweat
Stress sweat may be unpleasant to experience, but there are plenty of ways to control and even prevent it.
Antiperspirants and deodorants are good options for anyone who wants to control sweat, whether it’s stress sweat or sweat from exercise, heat, etc. There are many over-the-counter (OTC) options available. Still, if your sweating is severe, you may want to talk to a healthcare professional about using a clinical strength antiperspirant or deodorant.
Bathing regularly to wash away bacteria is also an important way to control body odor. For some people, sweat pads (disposable cotton pads) can be worn to absorb excess sweat and help keep odor in check.
To help prevent stress sweat, it’s important to get a handle on the cause: stress. There are a variety of stress management techniques and tools available, including meditation, therapy, yoga, and more.
If you experience stress sweating, you may also want to groom the hair in the areas where the apocrine glands are located (like the underarms and bikini area). This can help reduce the number of bacteria mixing with lipids and proteins in the sweat.
And here’s one unlikely but seemingly effective way to prevent stress sweat: chew gum. A 2009 study found that people who chewed gum in stressful moments had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva, and they reported feeling less stressed and anxious (Scholey, 2009).
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
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Chen, D. (2006). Chemosignals of fear enhance cognitive performance in humans. Chemical Senses, 31 (5), 415–423. doi: 10.1093/chemse/bjj046. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/chemse/article/31/5/415/395942
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Lam, T. H., Verzott, D., Brahma, P. et al. Understanding the microbial basis of body odor in pre-pubescent children and teenagers. Microbiome, 6 , 213 (2018). doi: 10.1186/s40168-018-0588-z. Retrieved from https://microbiomejournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40168-018-0588-z
Rubin, D., Botanov, Y., Hajcak, G., & Mujica-Parodi, L. R. (2012). Second-hand stress: inhalation of stress sweat enhances neural response to neutral faces. Social, Cognitive, & Affective Neuroscience , 7 (2):208-12. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsq097. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/7/2/208/1624499
Sato, K., Leidal, R., & Sato, F. (1987). Morphology and development of an apoeccrine sweat gland in human axillae. American Journal of Physiology , 252 (1):R166-R180. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.1987.252.1.R166. Retrieved from https://journals.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/ajpregu.1987.252.1.r166
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