Men are sweatier than women, even when you take body size into account. Scientists tested volunteers in a laboratory mock-up of a sweltering car. Men lost 250 g of sweat per hour, which was 70 g more than the women (New Scientist 1 June 2002)
The uses of sweating
- Sweating is one of the ways we regulate our body temperature – humans rely on the evaporation of sweat to protect the body against a hot environment (most other animals rely on insulation or panting)
- Sweat helps to keep our skin moist
- Sweating of the body and hands when we are anxious may occur for a reason – to help us escape from enemies if they try to grab us
- Sweat from some areas of the body contains scents (‘pheromones’) that send secret signals to other people
- According to New Scientist magazine (10 November 2001), sweat contains a natural antibiotic, dermicidin, that helps to destroy bacteria on the skin
There are two sorts of sweat glands.
- Apocrine glands are found mainly in the armpits and near the anus. We each have about 1 million of these glands. They are really scent glands. The sweat that comes from them has a particular smell in each person, and probably includes ‘pheromone’ scents that send messages to other people.
- Eccrine glands are responsible for sweating when we are hot. We each have about 3 million of these glands. Every 1 cm2 of the back has about 60 sweat glands. On the palms and soles, there are about 600 glands per cm2.
Worries about sweating
- The sweat may show on your clothes (for example at the armpits) or give you embarrassingly sweaty palms.
- You may be worried about the smell of the sweat. Sweat from most of the sweat glands (i.e. the eccrine glands) is not smelly itself (except the pheromones, which are so subtle that we are not consciously aware of smelling them), but it quickly becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. These bacteria break down sweat to produce fatty acids. It is these fatty acids that have the acrid, penetrating, pungent, ‘stale sweat’ smell. Arm and groin sweat is particularly rich in protein – a favourite of bacteria. Sweat from other parts of the body is saltier and less hospitable to bacteria. This problem can be approached in two ways: sweating itself can be prevented; or the bacteria that cause the smell can be attacked
Doctors are now becoming more sympathetic to people troubled by excessive sweating. They are realizing that excessive sweating can affect your work and social life (British Journal of Dermatology 2002;147:1218–26).
Dr Phil Hammond's entertaining and informative Expert guide to Sweating covers body odour, pheromones and Emperor moths.
Written by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Edited by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Last updated: Monday, October 13th 2014
Dr Phil Hammond asks why do we sweat, why do some people smell more than others, and what can we do about it. Find out more by clicking on the video below.
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Each person has 3-4 million sweat glands
At rest in a cool environment, a normal person loses about half a litre of sweat in a day
The sweat glands are capable of producing 12 litres of sweat in 24 hours
Hippopotamus sweat is red. It contains sunscreen and is also antiseptic (Nature 2004;429:363)
We can smell the sweat of a giraffe from a quarter of a mile away. The smell repels ticks (New Scientist 1 February 2003)