Life

It’s time to accept that women don’t ‘glow’ – we sweat

Posted by
Alix Walker
Published

Rising temperatures mean chafing thighs and sweaty underboobs because – guess what – women sweat. Stylist discusses the sticky situation.     

There’s not an awful lot to love about public transport. I’ve seen a flaccid penis on the Tube’s Northern line. Experienced a man eating an egg sandwich millimetres from my face on an overcrowded commuter train. Suffered other people’s music on the bus. But in the summer, commuting really comes into its own.

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You may be packed into what feels like a travelling greenhouse, sun streaming in through sealed windows. Or forced into a dark, humid tunnel along with roughly half the population of your city.

The summer commute is a sweaty hell for anyone who perspires (everyone, then). It can transform a simple grey T-shirt into the ultimate betrayal of our body’s attempt to cool itself. And I’m afraid I’m here to announce that sweat season is officially upon us. 

Anyone who’s ever been on the Central line in July (London’s hottest Tube with temperatures reaching 32°C) is familiar with the feeling of beads of sweat trickling down your back. But a sticky commute is pretty much unavoidable: standing on a bus through rush-hour as your wet palms try to grip the pole; cycling while the sun burns into your backpack, forming a giant sweat-patch underneath; or dashing through crowds to your morning meeting with hair that’s saturated with your own bodily fluids. 

Sometimes the office air con just isn’t enough

Hands up if you’ve ever self-consciously folded your arms across the two semi-circles of dampness under your boobs as you run into a colleague on your morning coffee run? Who here has dashed straight to the toilets with a wad of paper towels to mop up the mess under your arms and said boobs?

It might not be pretty, but it’s something that unites us all. Which is why we wanted to talk about it. As part of our new Love Women campaign we’ve made a commitment to discuss imperfect, unfiltered normal life, and sweating is most definitely part of that. 

Hot and bothered 

Everyone sweats. We sweat when we’re too hot, when we’re anxious, when we’re stressed, when we fancy someone, when we have sex and when we’ve eaten too many pulled pork tacos (the meat sweats are a biologically proven phenomenon – it’s to do with your metabolism speeding up to digest fatty foods).

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Sweating is a crucial bodily function, and alongside its primary purpose – cooling the body down – it has a few more tasks on its to-do list: boosting immunity, aiding detoxification, opening blocked pores and preventing colds and other infections.

If we didn’t sweat we would risk heat stroke (which can be fatal) and, contrary to popular belief, sweating quickly and profusely is typically a sign of high fitness levels as it shows your body is adept at cooling down efficiently. 

Sweating during exercise is a sign of high fitness levels

Natural it may be, but that doesn’t stop sweat being at best annoying and at worst debilitating (hyperhidrosis – excessive sweating – is suffered by 2-3% of the population). We each have two to five million sweat glands and they tend to cluster in the most unfortunate of places: under our boobs, our groin and, my personal favourite, our upper lip (I have many holiday photos featuring a fetching sweat moustache). 

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And not all sweat glands are created equal. Eccrine glands are found on our palms, the soles of our feet and our forehead. They secrete a clear, odourless sweat that regulates our body’s temperature by allowing heat loss through evaporation. Apocrine glands, on the other hand, are found primarily in the armpits, groin, ears and breast area. The milky fluid produced by these sweat glands contains more nutrients, which makes it more attractive to the bacteria, Staphylococcus hominis, that live in our armpits and groin. When these bacteria interact with sweat, we start to smell bad.

Ah yes, the most damning of schoolyard insults: BO. No one wants to smell stale but the reality is, after a day in a sweaty office, most of us do. It’s very rarely to do with poor hygiene (washing daily is adequate), it’s far more often down to the type and quantity of natural bacteria we carry on our skin and the reason why we’re sweating. 

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The sweat we produce when we’re emotional, nervous, anxious or excited comes from our apocrine glands, which is why ‘stress sweat’ smells more. And there’s a valid reason for this: emotional sweating is a key tool for communication. Studies show sweat produced by someone in a fearful state – say, sky-diving – versus that produced by someone simply exercising prompts a different emotion in those smelling it. 

The fact that we women sweat at all – and from all manner of places – might come as a shock if you were to pay much attention to, say, women in action films, where intense physical exertion manifests as a light dusting of perspiration across a brow or cleavage. Or deodorant adverts which tend to advertise their products by showing a bone-dry woman going on a ‘confident’ leisurely walk, rather than a far more realistic ‘woman dripping in sweat on a train’ situation.

According to the media, women don’t sweat

This is in direct contrast to the depiction of men, where sweat tends to have connotations of masculinity, fitness and strength: see the title of Bear Grylls’ autobiography, Mud, Sweat And Tears, or footballers swapping sodden shirts after a match. 

The not-so-subtle message from the lack of sweaty women shown by the media is that women who sweat too much are dirty, unfeminine, lazy, fat. That sweating is somehow shameful. Pretty much how society has taught us to treat all bodily functions and secretions, whether it’s periods or sex or body hair. 

While sweat might seem like a trivial topic, until we talk about it honestly and with zero shame, by omission we’re contributing to the narrative that women come in one neat, clean little package. Let’s acknowledge that underneath our Ganni dress we’re sweating too, just like the model in a fashion shoot or the actor standing before a wall of flashing cameras, scared her armpits will expose her. 

So, in the spirit of that honesty – it’s hot, it’s sweaty, here are the clothes to wear if you fear sweat patches, the deodorants that will withstand even the Central line on the hottest day of the year, and an extremely useful guide to dealing with chafing.

Here’s to a slightly less sweaty summer. 

Sweat proof style 

Six summer fashion rules to follow to keep your warm-weather outfits chic and sweat patch-free.

  • Consider a short suit for formal workwear

    Short suits are a key trend for s/s 2019 and perfect for work, particularly if you go for oversized tailoring like this lilac suit, which offers plenty of room for air circulation and a jacket to cover sweat patches.

    Jacket, £79, and shorts, £35, Marks & Spencer (marksandspencer.com

  • Make the maxi dress your summer staple

    Maxi dresses are everywhere this season, which is ideal because they don’t cling, keep your shoulders and arms bare, and the voluminous shape provides plenty of ventilation. 

    Dress, £295, Dodo Bar Or (matches fashion.com

  • Stick with natural fabrics or linen

    Fabrics like cotton, linen and even light wool absorb sweat rather than repelling it and allow the skin to breathe. Choose dresses and tops that are loose around the armpits to allow for plenty of air circulation and which don’t restrict your movement.

    Dress, £48, Next (next.co.uk

  • Invest in leather sandals

    Banish plastic and rubber shoes and make friends with high-quality leather. This pair is office-appropriate and have plenty of cut-outs for prompt sweat evaporation.

    £85, Dune (dunelondon.com)

  • Swap your tight T-shirts for more sweat-friendly basics

    If you don’t want sweat patches, opt for tops which provide plenty of ventilation – this genius Kimono-sleeved style is airy yet chic.

    £35, Cos (cosstores.com

How to deal when the chafe is real

With sweat and friction comes thigh chafing, something Stylist’s fashion news editor Billie Bhatia has spent years battling.

Billie Bhatia street style fashion week
Billie decided to start talking openly about the chafe

Chafing – it’s a real bastard, isn’t it? Picture this: it’s a hot summer’s day and you’re desperate to ditch your denim for a summer dress. A breeze around the legs? Yes, please! But instead you’re furious to learn that, having walked to the Tube station, you’re greeted with sweaty thighs that stick together and rub in the most painful way.

For almost all of my adult life, I thought it was only women with larger-than-average thighs who suffered from this summer plague (it is dubbed ‘chub rub’ after all). So I didn’t confide in anyone about my embarrassing sore thighs.

On holiday with my friends I would hide my talcum powder (Superdrug’s Medicated Talcum Powder, £1.35) and sleep like a starfish so my well-worn thighs could recover overnight. I couldn’t tell people I was struggling to walk up and down the hill to the beach – instead I’d say my leggings were to prevent me getting mosquito bites.

I eventually found my saviour in cycling shorts (my favourite are New Look’s Curves cycling shorts, £4 – the cotton is really soft and they don’t roll up). They meant I was free. Free to wear a dress! Free to walk further than the end of my road without holding back tears!

Thanks to the giddy excitement of being able to exist in the summer, I had to share the experience with my friends and finally tell them that I, Billie Bhatia, chafe. Fortunately for me, having this conversation resulted in a ground-breaking revelation: it turns out a huge percentage of the female population also chafe because (here comes the big one) most women’s thighs touch!

Realising that this is a problem most women struggle with, the fashion and beauty industry have responded with a host of products to combat the chafe. Brands including Asos, New Look and PrettyLittleThing sell affordable anti-chafing shorts, garters and thigh bands. There are now a multitude of anti-chafing beauty products, including Lush Silky Underwear Dusting Powder (£9), Smoovall Skin Contact Spray (£12.99), Megababe Thigh Rescue Stick (£12) and Bodyglide For Her Balm (£10.99). But many Stylist staffers swear by a swipe of simple roll-on deodorant, some argan and coconut oil or even just good old Vaseline. Your commute might be sweaty – let’s face it, most public transport needs an air conditioning upgrade – but at least now your legs will be able to carry you through, chafe-free. 

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The ultimate sweat test

Stylist staff put deodorants through their paces on the daily commute: five days, five different forms of transport…

The natural one – Aurelia Botanical Cream Deodorant

With kaolin clay and antiseptic essential oils, this absorbs sweat and odour and hydrates skin.

The verdict: “This smells zingy, but it felt grainy and awkward to apply with my fingers,” says executive fashion director Kitty McGee. “It held up well during my warm bus journeys and kept me dry all day, but by mid-morning there was a scent that was more natural than I’d like. I’d use it on more relaxed days.”

Kitty’s warm bus journeys call for good protection

Aurelia Botanical Cream Deodorant, £18

The herbal one – Aesop Deodorant

Rather than inhibit sweating, this botanical blend uses zinc to conceal odour and stop it being released into the air.

The verdict: “The scent is quite overpowering and clashed with my perfume,” says Georgina Emanuel, digital delivery executive. “It didn’t keep me as dry as my normal deodorant, plus it’s four times the price. It would be good as a refresher or for light sweaters.”

Georgina’s formula didn’t pass the train test

Aesop Deodorant, £23

The strong one – Perspirex Original Antiperspirant Roll-on

Specifically formulated for excessive sweaters, this one is applied at night and claims to inhibit perspiration for five days.

The verdict: “Wearing this walking to and from work, I found it no better than my bog-standard roll-on” says Sally Buch, events assistant. “It had quite a chemical smell and irritated my skin, but I’m not a heavy sweater so it may work for others.”

Sally walks an hour to and from work every day

Perspirex Original Antiperspirant Roll-on, £8.49

The classic one – Dove Original Antiperspirant Roll On

This formula has soothing vitamin E and no drying alcohol, offering up to 48 hours of protection.

The verdict: “I just want something nice-smelling with the ability to cover my embarrassment if I overheat on the packed Central line,” says digital executive editor Felicity Thistlethwaite. “I am a life-long spray deodorant girl, but this is a strong (and inexpensive) alternative.”

Overheating on the tube is Felicity’s bugbear

Dove Original Antiperspirant Roll On, £2.49

The dry one – Sure Advanced Protection Ultimate Fresh Deodorant

This spray busts sweat with microcapsules that burst to release fragrance every time you move.

The verdict: “As a cycler, I need a sturdy formula to ward off wetness and odour, especially as my rucksack straps trap everything in,” says Helen Bownass, entertainment director. “I’m devoted to my usual stick, but this held up pretty well after cycling and netball.”

Cyclist Helen has been swayed by the spray

Sure Advanced Protection Ultimate Fresh Deodorant, £3

Photography: Dennis Pederson, Victoria Adamson 

Images: Courtesy of brands

Additional words: Billie Bhatia, Ava Welsing-Kitcher

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Alix Walker

Alix Walker is editor-at-large at Stylist magazine. She works across print, digital and video and could give Mary Berry a run for her money with her baking skills. 

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