Whether you like to run outdoors or inside on the treadmill, take indoor cycling classes, lift weights at the gym, or mix up your cardio routine too often to pinpoint which type of exercise you do most often, you’re likely well aware that you sweat when you exercise.
Sweating helps cool the body down because the body releases heat energy by heating the sweat into beads on the skin that are then evaporated.
However, you’re likely also familiar with stress sweating—such as the cold, clammy sweat that breaks out before a big presentation or a first date.
But what is the difference between stress sweat and regular sweat? Why does anxiety sweating occur?
This article will discuss the composition of regular sweat vs. stress sweat, why stress sweating occurs, and how to reduce the odors associated with sweating from stress.
We will cover:
- Why Do We Sweat?
- Why Do We Sweat from Stress?
- Differences Between Regular Sweat vs. Stress Sweat
- How to Reduce the Stress Sweat Smell
Let’s jump in!
Why Do We Sweat?
With regular sweat, the sweating response is a thermoregulatory mechanism designed to help cool the body down.
The sweat glands in the skin are signaled to produce and release sweat onto the surface of the skin.
Simultaneously, another thermoregulatory response is initiated, which involves increasing blood circulation to the surface of the skin.
This helps bring warm blood away from the body’s core towards the outside, where more excess heat can be released.
As blood is brought to the surface of the skin, the trapped heat energy can be transferred to the drops of sweat through conduction. As the sweat moisture gains heat energy, it vaporizes and evaporates off the surface of the skin.
In this way, excess heat energy is dissipated, helping the body release heat and cool down.
Of course, this entire process makes sense when you are exercising, sitting out in the sun on a hot day, spending time in a sauna, or otherwise overheating for one reason or another.
Regular sweating is indeed one of the body’s most effective means of cooling down.
In addition to helping cool the body, there are other functions of sweat, such as helping manage fluid and electrolyte levels and hydrate your skin.
However, why do we sweat from stress or anxiety?
It often doesn’t seem that sweating from stress isn’t necessarily tied to being too hot, so what causes stress sweat? Let’s examine the mechanisms underlying sweating from stress more closely.
Why Do We Sweat from Stress?
Most of us have experienced stress sweating or anxiety sweating, but why exactly does this occur?
“Stress” is a natural physiological response to perceived threats. Our bodies are hardwired for survival, which involves being on alert and reactive to potential dangers.
Although most perceived “threats” these days—such as meeting someone new, going on an interview, etc.—aren’t do or die for survival, these mechanisms did have more biological survival means with our earlier human ancestors, such as outrunning lions.
Regardless, our bodies have stored these biological mechanisms such that the sympathetic nervous system is activated when a perceived threat is experienced.
This is the “fight or flight” branch of the nervous system, which activates the body to either face the stress and fight or flee.
As such, the sympathetic nervous system initiates a cascade of actions that activate the body for action. A rush of adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones are released, which together increase your heart rate and prime your muscles to fight or flee.
The nerves activate and control the sweat glands in the body. These nerves can be activated by stressors, emotions, and hormones, so the sweat glands kick in whether your temperature rises due to exercise or stress or if your sympathetic nervous system is triggered.
According to research, apocrine sweating is largely regulated by psychological stimuli and resultant circulating catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine), whereas eccrine sweating is not.
Differences Between Regular Sweat vs. Stress Sweat
Studies suggest that the human body contains about 2-4 million sweat glands.
There are two types of sweat glands—eccrine sweat glands and apocrine sweat glands.
Most sweat glands are eccrine glands found in most areas of the body, particularly in the armpits, back, forehead, soles of the feet, and palms.
With regular sweat, whether your body temperature increases due to exercise or just being too hot, the autonomic nervous system signals your eccrine sweat glands to release sweat.
The composition of regular sweat from the eccrine glands is mostly composed of water (about 99%), with a small number of electrolytes and traces of sugar.
The apocrine sweat glands, which are larger but far less numerous and widespread than eccrine sweat glands, produce the majority of sweat from stress.
They are mainly located along hair follicles in the genital region, armpits, and scalp.
The stress sweat released through apocrine glands is thicker and contains more fat and protein but less water than regular sweat.
These nutrients mix with and feed the bacteria on the skin, which is what creates the odor associated with stress sweat. Plus, because the stress sweat is thicker, it doesn’t evaporate as quickly, which gives the bacteria more time to breed and mix with the sweat, exacerbating the odor.
How to Reduce the Stress Sweat Smell
As mentioned, stress sweat tends to smell worse than regular sweat because it is thicker and has a different composition, with more fat and protein. The viscosity decreases the rate of evaporation, allowing the sweat to linger on the skin longer.
This gives the bacteria on the skin’s surface more time to feast on the nutrients in the sweat and mix with it, which is ultimately responsible for the bad smell associated with either type of sweating.
Although it might not be possible to completely neutralize or prevent a stinky sweaty odor, here are a few tips to help manage smelly sweat:
#1: Try Antiperspirant
People often use the terms antiperspirant and deodorant interchangeably, but they are actually two different things.
Deodorant is a formulation that just masks the odor of your sweat with some other type of smell.
There may be additional ingredients that are thought to potentially neutralize some of the acids and odor-causing bacteria on your skin, such as baking soda or activated charcoal. However, the utility of these might not be all that effective, especially activated charcoal.
On the other hand, antiperspirant has ingredients that reduce the amount of sweat you produce by temporarily blocking some of your pores.
Antiperspirants aren’t necessarily all that healthy, especially if they contain aluminum or other harmful compounds like phthalates and parabens.
Therefore, this isn’t the best solution unless you can find a natural antiperspirant, but if you struggle with hyperhidrosis, a condition marked by excessive sweating, it might be a necessary option.
You can also speak with your doctor about other potential treatments for hyperhidrosis, like Botox injections.
In terms of stress sweat in the genital region and sweaty feet that stink after working out, some body deodorants are designed specifically to be safely used in the genital region. A good option is Lume deodorant.
It contains ingredients and have a special formulation that won’t alter the pH of this area.
#2: Practice Good Hygiene
Bathing regularly and keeping your underarms, feet, scalp, and genitals clean and tidy can reduce bacterial growth, reducing sweat odors.
Studies suggest that keeping your armpit and genital hair short can reduce the amount of sweat you produce.
Additionally, the deodorant will be better able to reach the surface of your skin where the bacteria reside if your hair is short.
#4: Use Relaxation Methods
To reduce the likelihood of producing a lot of stress sweat, trying to keep your body and mind as calm as possible is helpful.
Strategies that may help reduce stress and anxiety include breathing techniques, taking a walk, chewing gum, listening to calming music, taking a relaxing walk, hugging a loved one, or petting a dog or cat.
Remember, we all sweat, whether too hot or overly stressed, so try not to feel too self-conscious about it.
Managing your stress level and trying to keep a clean and dry body can prevent some of the bacterial overgrowth that ultimately will add an odor to your sweat.
For some help lowering your stress levels by exercising, check out our article, Stress, and Anxiety, How Running Can Improve Your Stress Levels.