Most of us have a love-hate relationship with sweat: We leave a grueling spin class soaked and happy, but dread the thought of stress-sweat pit stains before a big meeting or a date.
Turns out, the human body sweats for a whole slew of reasons—and some of us simply wind up soggier than others (no matter where we go, what we do, or how hot or cold it is outside).
Here, everything you need to know about sweat, and how to stop the flood gates if it seems you’re drenched all the dang time.
First, The Basics
The two main culprits of sweat are heat and emotional stress. Both trigger the release of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters that signal our sweat glands to secrete sweat. “The body sweats from individual glands located all over the body,” says dermatologist Kavita Mariwalla, M.D. “The glands are more concentrated in some areas, like your underarms and forehead, for example.” (Well that explains a lot.)
If we didn’t sweat, we’d overheat. “The body sweats as a way to thermoregulate itself,” says Dr. Mariwalla. When the body senses heat, it produces sweat to help control its internal temperature.
When we work out, for example, our blood vessels dilate, increasing circulation and helping the ‘heat’ to dissipate through the surface area of the skin in the form of sweat, Mariwalla says. Once the sweat hits your skin, the fluid evaporates, cooling you down.
But here’s the thing: “Not all sweat is intended to cool down the body,” says Lauren Eckert Ploch, M.D., dermatologist at Georgia Dermatology and Skin Cancer. You know it as the ever-dreaded stress sweat. “Our brain has many ways of notifying our bodies of potentially stressful or dangerous situations,” she says. Sweat may be one of them. No wonder your pits suddenly feel wet as you walk into a job interview (or your in-laws’ house).
Feel Like You Sweat A Lot?
Some of us tend to walk out of a workout a little stickier than others, but what causes this unjust extra sweating?
How much you sweat (and how you respond to hot temps for that matter) can be genetic. But often, a slew of factors are at play. Everything from the type of exercise you’re doing (HIIT versus, say, yoga) to the outside temperature to how many sweat glands you have can play a role. We all have several million sweat glands, but the exact number varies from person to person, according to research out of The Rockefeller University.
Your fitness level may also play a role. A study published in PLOS One found that regular runners started sweating more quickly and sweat more than their sedentary counterparts, suggesting that increased sweating may sometimes be an indication of the body’s adapted ability to keep cool.
Additional factors, like health conditions or certain meds, may also have an effect. Neurological disorders or medications that affect our nervous systems can cause minor abnormalities in how neurotransmitters are secreted, and impact how much we sweat, Ploch says. A paper published in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy identified excess sweating as a side effect of multiple types of antidepressant medications, including Wellbutrin, Zyban, and Effexor.
Meanwhile, some neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, or other health issues, like diabetes, can also contribute to increased sweating, Ploch says.
What You Can Do To Dry Off
The first step to warding off excessive sweat is to keep your skin cool and dry, says Ploch. “Use an antiperspirant, not just a deodorant,” says Mariwalla. “Antiperspirants create a salt that then plugs the sweat ducts and decreases sweating, while deodorants just mask the odor.”
Heavy sweaters may even want to consider a product with a higher concentration of antiperspirant’s active ingredient, aluminum chloride, she says. Look for a product labeled with ‘extra strength’ or ‘clinical strength.’
If a higher-strength product isn’t doing the trick, touch base with your dermatologist. “I often recommend a medication that helps inhibit the neurotransmitter that can increase sweating,” explains Ploch. An alternative treatment involves injecting neurotoxins into the heavy-sweating area to decrease sweating, she adds.
However, if you think your pit stains are related to anxiety or stress, your first step should be to treat those issues directly, she says.
Should You Worry About Your Sweat?
Too little sweat (like not even a single droplet after exercise) can be problematic if you become overheated, says Mariwalla. Your body may not be able to properly cool itself down when needed, explains Ploch. Talk to your doctor about any potential genetic issues at play, or any medications that may be impacting your ability to sweat.
If you find yourself randomly sweating without exerting yourself at least once a week, it may be a sign of hyperhidrosis (excess sweating), according to the American Academy of Dermatology. “Hyperhidrosis often affects quality of life, friendships, work life, and more,” says Ploch. If that sounds like you, make an appointment with your doc.