Why You're Stress-Sweating & How To Stop It

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Sweat is perfectly acceptable on a 90-degree day in New Orleans or while setting a personal record for burpees — not so much in a climate-controlled conference room during the morning meeting. And before you can battle this unwelcome perspiration, you need to know that not all sweat is created equal. Heat, activity, and stress are the main causes of swampy pits, but the sweat caused by anxiety has a unique source and requires its own set of coping strategies. But don't stress out about it — click ahead to find out why it happens and how you can stop it.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Why Stress Sweat Is Different
“Stress sweat is unique because it comes from a different gland,” says Kati Bakes, a sweat scientist — yes, that is her title — for Procter & Gamble. The moisture that results from a CrossFit session or your typical August day originates in your eccrine gland, whereas the “I have to make a PowerPoint presentation” sweat comes from your apocrine gland.

Apocrine glands are mostly located in your underarms with a few in your groin region and, oddly, your inner ear, Bakes says. Eccrine glands are located all over your body and help regulate your temperature by releasing moisture that evaporates and cools your skin.

But when you break out in a cold, nervous sweat — when you try chatting up the Ryan Gosling lookalike in your office, for example — the blood vessels in your skin don't dilate as much as they would with heat sweat, explains Ramsey Markus, MD, associate professor of dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Your hands and feet might actually feel cold, because your blood is going to other vital organs when you’re under stress.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Why We Need Stress Sweat
The signals for stress sweat come from a different part of the brain than heat sweat, Dr. Markus says. “When you’re feeling anxiety, the sympathetic system causes your hands, feet, and underarms to perspire,” he explains. “That’s priming you for action under the fight-or-flight response.” He suggests that the added moisture could have helped our ancestors grab weapons or hold on to saber-toothed tigers. (Makes whatever is stressing you out seem a little less intense, doesn't it?)

“There may be an evolutionary role in why we emit odors when we’re stressed,” Bakes says. If something larger than a house cat is chasing you, smelling bad can repulse a predator as well as let surrounding people know there is danger, she explains.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Why Stress Sweat Stinks
Heat and activity sweat is 99% water, Bakes says. But stress sweat is 80% water and 20% lipids and proteins. “The lipids and proteins act as ‘food’ for the bacteria that naturally live on your skin,” Bakes says. When the bacteria eat that sweat, they create smelly waste, which is why stress sweat is the most offensive. There’s not much food in activity sweat for them to eat.

In a strange twist, there are some people who simply don’t produce any body odor. “Researchers have discovered that variations in a certain gene mean you won’t have body odor,” Bakes says. Congratulations to those special snowflakes.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Why Stress Sweat Is Contagious
One of the strange side effects of stress sweat is that it sends subconscious signals that impact your behavior, and the behavior of those around you. “Stress sweat can become a vicious cycle — smelling the sweat can further stress you out and cause more sweat,” Bakes says. It can also impact those around you. When people smell your stress sweat, even if it's on a subconscious level, they start sweating as well, Bakes explains.

Unsurprisingly, having a fear of sweating can also cause sweating. So if antiperspirant doesn’t work, it might be time to find some ways to relieve stress, like therapy, yoga, or even just taking a nice bath.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
How To Battle Stress-Sweat BO
“You need to stop the sweat,” says Dr. Markus. But if you’ve ever had a make-it-or-break-it job interview, you know that’s not as simple as it sounds. Using an antiperspirant with aluminum salts can be a helpful line of defense, he explains. Your sweat glands absorb the compound, so it can form a plug that physically blocks perspiration.

A clinical antiperspirant contains higher levels of aluminum salts than standard options for a stronger barrier against sweat. Try Secret Clinical Strength, which also contains capsules that absorb odor and release scent — like Febreze for your underarms. You can also apply antiperspirant to your feet and palms if you want extra protection.

If you know you have an important meeting, you can apply your antiperspirant the night before, says Bakes. You tend to sweat less during sleep, which allows the aluminum salts to be absorbed more easily, giving your body more time to form the plugs.

For more serious cases, Dr. Markus says getting Botox injections in your armpits is a possibility. The toxin inhibits both types of sweat glands, so you’re able to stay dry for up to seven months at a time before needing another treatment.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
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