The aircon is cranked up to the max and it’s about -5°C in the office. So why are we sweating like we’ve just run a 5K? Stylist investigates...
Words: Moya Lothian-McLean
Rifle through my wardrobe and you’ll find only three long-sleeved tops, all in comforting, uniform black. This isn’t thanks to a colour phobia; my drawers boast an entire rainbow’s worth of vests. Rather, it’s my treacherous pits that are to blame. Let my underarms loose on any clothing affected by moisture and within minutes I’ll be the proud owner of two large, circular sweat stains. Structured blue shirt? Out of the question. Fitted red jersey dress? Fine if I keep my arms clamped to my side all day. Black’s the only shade that doesn’t betray me.
I’m not alone either. Anxiety-triggered dampness, sopping palms and forehead beading are just a few forms that sweaty insecurities take in my immediate circle of friends. All of us report feeling seriously hindered by the unpredictability of perspiration; living in fear of when sweat will strike stops us wearing certain outfits, eschewing high-risk activities (avoiding the Tube when you’ve got an important presentation first thing really is self-care) and even dents our confidence in the bedroom. If that seems excessive, we agree. But letting our sweat trickle free is a no-go.
In fact, sweat is one of the last major grooming taboos, the new pubic pelt if you will. There’s an unabashed stigma attached to what your pesky little sudoriferous glands produce and one that shows no sign of undergoing positive rebranding, à la body hair, anytime soon. Sure, a healthy ‘sheen’ is perfectly acceptable, even desirable: make-up artists at Anya Hindmarch and David Koma’s s/s 2017 shows deliberately sent out models sporting that ‘I just jogged here’ radiance. Exercise- induced sweat is a badge of honour; you positively want to finish your HIIT class awash in the proof of effort expended. But bog- standard sweat – the kind that drips down your face during a cramped commute, pools under your armpits when your boss fires a question at you, or leaves your post-cycle crotch in a disgustingly moist state – that sweat is neither celebrated nor acknowledged. Despite being as natural as the thick fuzz protecting our privates or rough skin on stiletto ravaged feet, sweat remains our soggy, secret shame.
So horrified are we at the idea of sweating that some are even resorting to Botox to stop perspiring altogether. It might be a legitimate remedy for the 3% of the world afflicted by hyperhidrosis (a condition that ups your sweat production to five times that of the average person) but for everyone else, it’s an extreme, normalised by outdated attitudes to a bodily function. Sweat carries embarrassing subliminal messages: “I’m dirty!” screams a wet back on the Tube. “I’m overweight!” yells a rivulet dribbling down someone’s neck. “I smell bad!” declare your deskmate’s damp armpits. Unsurprisingly, deodorants are big beauty business. Deodorant isn’t an optional item; where you might forgo lipstick on any given day, skipping the morning spritz of Sure is unthinkable for most. Because sweat isn’t sexy, is it? It’s not feminine to sweat. As the old adage goes: men sweat and women glow. Sweating males embody an enticing primal masculinity. Sweating women though? Well, a study in the science journal PLOS ONE found men perceived them as “less confident, competent and trustworthy”. And god forbid that the perspiration you emit might actually... smell. BO is the brush no-one wants to be tarred with.
So why the discrepancy between those who sweat the small stuff and others who remain dry? Chalk it up to the DNA lottery say the scientists: genes decide how many sweat glands you have – anywhere between two and four million – while early environments also play a part; coming of age in warmer climes means sweatier times. You might also perspire more if you’re a caffeine fiend, smoke or tend to wear synthetic fabrics. Weight affects secretion too; the main function of sweat is to regulate your core temperature, so more insulation usually means more active glands. ‘Treatments’ are just as plentiful, from the innocent – I spent a significant part of my high school years drying my underarms in the toilets – to the DIY, such as sticking panty liners up sleeves to soak up moisture.
Yet what’s forgotten is the fact that sweating is integral to living. Sweat is excess heat evaporating from the surface of our skin. If we lost our internal air-con system, our bodies would short-circuit. Perspiring also helps rid us of poisonous toxins and – as sauna devotees know – blast open pores; a good sweat is the secret to great skin. Then there’s the sexual side (because there’s always a sexual side). Pheromones, airborne aphrodisiacs, are secreted through sweat. Ever felt your body instantly react to someone’s smell? That’s the automatic identification of a genetically compatible partner. Similarly, research has found humans can detect someone’s sexual orientation when presented with a sweaty shirt, preferring the scent of clothes from those within their dating pool.
While an open-armed embrace of sweat might be a way off, the cosmetics industry is slowly starting to respond. Au naturel antiperspirants – that really care for our pits – have emerged as one of the most prominent new beauty trends in the run up to summer, something customers have long been asking for; a recent survey found 64% of UK consumers were interested in swapping to paraben or aluminium free antiperspirants. Natural deodorant launches from in-vogue brands like Cowshed and Aesop signal a gradual acceptance that we don’t need to bombard our skin with harsh chemicals in the hopes of causing a total cessation of perspiration. But for those whose secretion woes can’t be contained by a simple morning spritz of Sure, here’s Stylist’s prescriptive guide for difficult sweat.
Seriously sweaty solutions
Expert advice on getting out of a sticky situation
“It’s ruining my sex life”
Jo*, 32, suffers with excessive sweating during sex
“Most women are happy with the missionary position, but I hate it. Sweat pours from my face and pools around my collar bones. And it’s pretty hard to feel sexy when you can see sweat glistening in your belly button. After a few minutes of squelching in my stomach sweat, it feels really gross. I’ve even had boyfriends stop mid-way because they’re distracted by how much I’m sweating. Some take it as a compliment – they’ve got me so ‘hot’ – but it affects my confidence hugely. I’m naked and vulnerable anyway, and this is just another thing to feel self-conscious about. For a long time I was so conscious of it that I struggled to progress any relationship, and I was too embarrassed to explain why. Now I’m 32, I’m a bit more confident and I’ve started telling people in a jokey way – “by the way I’m a bit of a sweat monster” – but they never really understand until they experience it.
I’ve developed little rituals: I shower before and after sex and avoid certain positions – like me on top, as sweat will drip onto the other person. My GP says there’s nothing medically wrong. I guess I just have to live with it.”
Prescription: “There are two prescription drugs that could be worth a try,” says Dr Pixie McKenna, resident GP on Embarrassing Bodies. “Propranolol which can be used on an ad-hoc basis or Pro-Banthine that has to be taken continually. Chances are there’s a psychological element here too. The anticipation makes it worse so it would be worth talking it through with someone. And making the room as cool as possible, avoiding spicy food and alcohol and having cotton bed sheets is wise.”
“Sweating makes my skin sore”
Sandy*, 27, experiences chronic sweating on the soles of her feet
“I wash my feet at least three times a day. Before work, at lunchtime and then when I arrive home. I also always carry spare socks because they get so uncomfortable – I put socks on and 10 minutes later they’re really wet. Imagine walking around like that for hours. My feet are always really red and wrinkled, like I’ve been in the bath for hours, and the skin becomes really sore. Eventually it starts to peel. The weird thing is, I’m not a particularly sweaty person anywhere else. It’s just my feet. When the skin became very painful, my doctor gave me tablets that dissolve in water so that you can bathe your feet, but they dyed my feet orange so I stopped using them.
Usually I just refuse to take my shoes off because of how they look – and of course smell. But when I’m at yoga, I don’t have a choice. I remember one time being able to smell my feet and looking around and thinking ‘everyone else looks so lean and clean and fresh. I’m a pig.’ I think it’s worse for women because there’s this expectation that we’re odourless. I just don’t feel as feminine as other women. I know that’s stupid, but that’s how much this affects me.”
Prescription: “Foot specific antiperspirants containing aluminium chloride are effective,” recommends McKenna. “Another thing to be careful of is not wearing the same pair of shoes two days in a row, they need to air – especially if canvas or trainers. Take your socks and shoes off straight after a workout and avoid tights – they are a sweating disaster. Sweaty feet can lead to fungal infections on the skin and under the nails, and if this happens you will need an antifungal cream from the pharmacy.”
“I can’t move to a hot climate”
Caryn, 29, is receiving treatment for hyperhidrosis
“I have hyperhidrosis (excessive, uncontrollable sweat) in my hands and feet. At work I have a fan on my desk and point it at my hands all day. If I’m writing on paper it gets wet and curls up. Job interviews are the worst, because you can’t avoid a handshake. I also play the flute professionally, but I don’t think I will ever reach my full potential. It’s hard to hold the instrument when my hands are so slippery.
I’ve even had trouble with the new iPhone’s security feature because it doesn’t recognise my fingerprint when my hands are very sweaty. On the train, when I’m holding the rail, sweat drips from my palms onto the passenger below. All I can do is pretend it didn’t happen.
I started blogging about my condition (justalittlesweat.com) and my doctor prescribed iontophoresis. I put my hands in two trays of water with an electric current for 30 minutes every other day. It’s meant to thicken the skin to reduce sweatiness, but it’s not a solution. My whole family is about to move to Florida and I don’t think I can follow them. It’s even worse in that heat... I just can’t.”
Prescription: “In most cases hyperhidrosis can be treated with a prescription- strength antiperspirant. However, for more serious cases like this, Botox injections will help to block the chemical signals from the nerves that stimulate sweat. Surgery can also be considered, but only as a last resort,” warns Dr Steve Iley, medical director at Bupa UK. “One procedure involves removing the sweat glands from the area or there is a thoracic sympathectomy – where the nerves responsible for sweating are cut off.”
“The smell can clear the room”
Jess*, 29, has an issue with strong body odour
“I didn’t realise I had a problem until my 20s. I remember going to a work assignment and having to take off all my clothes except a T-shirt, and hide them in a corner because a horrible smell was emanating from them. It took forever to find a deodorant that worked, but I still throw out so many clothes. Blazers and coats absorb the stench and so only have a year’s shelf life. And because I mask the odour with deodorant, my BO has a real tang to it.
I always take my deodorant out with me, otherwise the smell is overwhelming by the end of the night. Dancing is the worst – in the cab back from my hen party my friend said, “Did you put deodorant on? You need to shower before bed.” I felt so self-conscious. Evening work events are a nightmare because I have to go in the clothes I’ve been wearing all day and I’m paranoid about smelling.
I’ve accepted my lot though. Someone suggested I stop wearing man-made fabrics but hemp clothes just aren’t my style. For now I’m just going to stick to my trusty Mitchum.”
Prescription: “Sweat is actually odourless; it’s the bacteria on your skin that cause the unpleasant odour,” explains Iley. “Tweaking your diet can help. Scientists have found that people deficient in magnesium – found in leafy greens and nuts – have a stronger body odour than others. Equally, foods that are high in protein may also increase your body odour.” It’s also worth upping your fibre intake as it helps flush out bacteria that might be lingering in your system.
*Names have been changed
Words: Moya Lothian-McLean, Alexandra Jones, Annie Davies, Sarah-Jane Corfield-Smith
Photography: Getty Images, iStock