You’re going over your notes before speaking in front of a crowd (with butterflies in your stomach) when you realize a clammy film of sweat is spreading over your body. The thing is, you’re in a totally air-conditioned room—so why are your underarms and temples wet with perspiration?
It’s called stress sweat. It’s a real thing, and it’s completely different from the type that drenches you after boot camp class.
“There are two to four million sweat glands all over your body,” says Angela Ballard, RN, an educator at the International Hyperhidrosis Society. “The majority of them are eccrine glands, which are mainly on the soles of your feet, palms, forehead, cheeks, and armpits.” And these are the glands that generate the sweat you want to get going several times a week during your fitness routine.
“There are two to four million sweat glands all over your body.”
Stress sweat, however, is rarely welcome. It creeps down your neck when the last thing you want to deal with is body odor and stains. (Seriously, who invited damp pits to your job interview or first date?) But there are plenty of glands that produce this type of sweat, too, so it’s bound to make an appearance in stressful situations.
Don’t sweat it, though (had to). Once you know where it comes from, it’s easier to keep an eye (and natural deodorant) on.
Keep reading to learn about stress sweat—plus how to manage it.
Where does stress sweat come from?
Stress sweat is created by different glands altogether: apocrine glands. “Apocrines are found mostly in the armpits, genital region, and sometimes on the scalp,” explains Ballard. “They exist near dense pockets of hair follicles.” That explains the pit stains.
“When your body’s reacting to an emotion—like anxiety, stress, or excitement—the aprocrine sweat’s released from its glands,” explains Ballard. “Because stress also activates your body’s sympathetic nervous system, you might notice other reactions, too.” Think a racing heart or a dry mouth (the usual suspects before a big presentation, am I right?). Another doozy of an unwanted side effect: BO.
Arielle Nagler, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Health, says it’s a myth that the more you sweat (out of either type of gland), the more you smell. “It’s not correlated,” she says. But stress sweat is more likely to cause a bad odor because it doesn’t evaporate as quickly as normal sweat—so when it combines with the bacteria on your body, you’re going to start to smell a little funky.
How do you prevent it?
While exercise- or heat-related sweat takes longer to kick in, stress sweat appears immediately—which explains why it takes a while to build a burn during Pilates class, but you start to drip as soon as your boss calls you into her office. That’s why the first and most essential trick to staying dry is keeping your anxiety in check.
“Managing your stress is key,” says Ballard. So be sure to keep up with whatever Zen-inducing method works best for you, whether it’s a meditation practice, sniffing essential oils, or regularly hitting up a boxing class. Bath rituals work, too.
“Coping mechanisms can alter your body’s level of responsiveness to a situation that can be stressful,” says Dr. Nagler. AKA, you’ll sweat less if you remain calm. “That’ll then decrease the odor because that’s only noticeable when you’re sweating and the bacteria is feeding off of the sweat.”
Another option is to groom the areas where your apocrine sweat is a problem. “This won’t limit the sweating, but it can help your deodorant reach the skin and do its job better,” says Ballard. “Trimming hair also prevents perspiration and oil from hanging around and cuts down on surface areas where bacteria and sweat can react.” Better brush (ahem) up on your bikini wax 101.
Lesson learned? If you remain calm, cool (literally), and collected, you can keep that stress sweat out of your already nerve-wracking situations.
For more help chilling out, try this breathing technique to de-stress instantly, wherever you are. You could also sip on this anxiety-reducing drink that wellness insiders are obsessed with.