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Don’t Sweat It: The Hows and Whys of Perspiration

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We’ve all been there—finishing a workout drenched in sweat, feeling hugely grateful for all those exercise endorphins. Then I look over at the Gisele Bündchen look-alike next to me who was spinning harder than I was, and she’s barely glistening.


While medical resources assure us that all humans do perspire (despite what the supermodel-esque woman would have me believe), some people seem to simply develop a dewy mist, while others … well, we make the whole sweat-like-pigs connection clear. What determines this? Does the way we sweat say something about our health? Is there anything we can do to lessen excessive perspiration?


What Lies Beneath
Sweating is the body’s release of salty liquid through its sweat glands. According to the National Institutes of Health, it’s an essential function that helps us stay cool, which is why we do it more during activities that heighten our body temperature. Just like air conditioning, the body has to work harder when it’s hotter, meaning our sweat glands respond to higher temperatures by kicking in—whether we’re exercising or just anxious to the point that our internal temperature rises.


We have two types of sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine. Eccrine glands are the most common, opening right onto the skin’s surface. Apocrine glands, on the other hand, are found in areas where we have a lot of hair; they develop along with hair follicles, on the scalp and groin and in the armpits. These are a little different, as they secrete a fatty sweat that our bodies push to the surface, where it meets with bacteria and creates unpleasant body odor, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.


Glisten Versus Globs
The amount of sweat we experience is determined by how many sweat glands we have—usually around two to four million. Women have more than men, but men’s tend to be more active. We ladies sweat less (sugar and spice, right?) because we can better regulate the amount of water we’re losing (that would explain the bloating). We also take longer to start sweating as our body temperature rises.


So we all sweat. It’s the when, where, and how much that can seriously differ, according to the Mayo Clinic. How much we sweat and even the way our sweat smells (ick, mental BO) can vary depending on our mood, diet, medical conditions, and even hormone levels. On top of this, some of us can add sweaty palms to the list of things to thank Mom and Dad for—genetics play a role, too.


When to Sweat It
After my boyfriend recently talked me into a workout session with him, I noticed that he was fairly moist with perspiration before I had even developed even a sheen of moisture. Clearly, he was in far superior shape, so why was he perspiring so much? 


“Fit people’s bodies cool off more efficiently,” says Ali Kerner, a Los Angeles–based personal trainer. “They do this by starting to sweat earlier.” Fit bodies are in the zone when it comes to heavy lifting, running, and so forth because they’ve done it so many times. They kick into gear right away, keeping the body cool from the start, making the whole workout more efficient.


In comparison, non–gym rats doing the same workout get hot faster and probably sweat more, says Kerner, even though it might not seem like it at the beginning. Anyone who’s overweight will sweat even more copiously—all that fat is extra insulation that raises body temperature. (Now, there’s some great trivia to throw out at a cocktail party.)


However, if you’re not overweight and you still sweat more profusely than most, something else could be going on.


“In high school, I began noticing that I sweated way more than everyone else,” says my friend Ella. “When I finally got the nerve to talk to my doctor about it, she prescribed me some extra-strong deodorant. That was all it took. I was able to go to prom without being a soaking-wet mess.”


Sweating crosses the line into excessive territory when we perspire more than we need to in order to cool off. So if you’re finding it impossible to get through an hour without wiping the sweat off your palms (or soles or underarms), even in a cool environment, you could have hyperhidrosis, or overactive sweat glands. The primary type of this condition refers to excessive sweating in the hands, feet, and armpits and affects around 3 percent of the population, according to the National Institutes of Health, and seems to be genetic.


Staying Dry
If sweating is more of a medically minor—but still socially major—nuisance, try these DIY techniques.


Rethink Food
Certain foods and drinks can be the culprits behind body-odor issues. Try cutting out spicy foods, strong-smelling foods (like onions and garlic), and caffeine to see if this helps with the amount you sweat and the particular odor of your perspiration.


Keep Those Tootsies Dry
Before putting on socks, make sure your feet and toes are totally dry—smelly bacteria thrive in just such warm, moist environments. This goes for shoes, too. If yesterday’s still have a little moisture in them, opt for a fresh pair until the other ones air out completely. 


Bathe Daily
This seems obvious, but making sure to shower every day, and after every workout, will ensure that bacteria on the skin is kept at low (scent-free) levels.


Apply Deodorant Twice
Once in the morning and once at night. Palms and feet the problem? Applying an antiperspirant there can decrease wetness, too. Cornstarch and talcum powder have a similar drying effect.


While sweating stinks, I figure it’s always better to know when I’m experiencing something truly abnormal, as opposed to when it’s just part of my body’s usual functions. The bad news? In my case, I can’t blame being drenched in post-workout sweat on an underlying health issue.

Updated February 21, 2011

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