Don't sweat it: Why we all need a little 'perspiration pep talk'

Myth-busting Ottawa science writer and Carleton University journalism prof Sarah Everts discusses all things sweaty, including why perspiration is still taboo.

Ottawa writer explores the science and sociology of sweating

A bead of sweat falls from a member of The Queen's Guard as he takes part in the Changing the Guard ceremony in London, England, in July 2018. (Kirsty O'Connor/Associated Press)

Ever wanted to know more about sweat, but were afraid to ask? Sarah Everts, with three million sweat glands to her name, can tell you plenty.

The Ottawa science writer has a fascination with perspiration, and has explored our "mercurial relationship" with the necessary — but sometimes nasty — bodily function.

She's even arranged to have her sweat glands counted, which is how she knows she's got three million, well within the normal human range of two to five million.

Everts, 44, has even attended a "sweat dating" event in Moscow, where connections were made irrespective of gender or sexual orientation, but instead were based on how one's body odour jived with the natural essences of other participants. 

Kind of like Tinder, but you swipe right based on smell, not looks.

Science writer and journalism professor Sarah Everts will speak at Carleton University's virtual Science Café on Wednesday. Her book, The Joy of Sweat, will be published in July. (Joerg Emes)

"You get this little cotton pad and you pat yourself down," said Everts. "Then you put it into a little jar that's numbered and anonymized. Then everybody at the event lines up and smells each little jar of all the different people, and if any of the odours appeal to you, you mark those down.

"I actually ended up getting matched with this woman who imports handbags."

The paradox of perspiration 

"Evolutionary biologists count bountiful sweating as one of the things that makes us human," Everts said.

And yet it remains largely taboo. Call it the perspiration paradox.

"We're so embarrassed by it and so mortified by it that we spend $75 billion annually on deodorants and antiperspirants, trying to pretend that we don't actually sweat, that we don't smell and that armpit stains are not actually there."

A close-up of some of Sarah Everts's own three million sweat glands. (Drew Best)

At the same time, and in the right context, sweating is the right thing to do.

"Humans also crave the catharsis of a good sweat," said Everts, who admits to the pandemic purchase of a spin bicycle to get her own healthy glow on.

We both are mortified by sweat, and yet we also totally crave it.- Sarah Everts

Indeed, the taboo isn't universal: Everts points to Indigenous sweat lodges, haman or Turkish baths across the Middle East, banyas in Russia, saunas in Finland, jimjilbangs in Korea and sentos in Japan. "The list goes on."

But even in those perspiration-positive environments, we humans tend to cover our tracks.

"There's something utterly absurd about going for a workout or sitting in a sauna where the goal is to sweat bountifully, and then to apply antiperspirant," said Everts. "We both are mortified by sweat, and yet we also totally crave it."

In certain circumstances, sweating is encouraged and even celebrated. Rob Wemigwans, a therapist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, demonstrates how he introduces himself before entering a sweat lodge. (The Canadian Press)

Get over it

Everts recalls doing hot yoga once, and being momentarily mortified as sweat dripped onto her yoga mat. Then she got over it.

"Jeez, why am I even embarrassed by this? I'm not going to evolve an alternative for temperature control any time soon," she thought.

Everts breaks down the taboo into two parts: visible sweat, the kind that drips down your face or creates unsightly circles under your armpits, and the invisible yet odiferous body odour that often accompanies it.

There are also two kinds of sweat glands: the kind that help with temperature control, and the kind that appear at puberty "and turn those zones stinky during the teenage years," said Everts.

But don't blame your teen's B.O. on the sweat glands alone.

"Wherever your hair grows in adolescence, a new kind of gland also grows there, and it releases a waxy sweat that actually is odourless when it comes out," said Everts. "But the bacteria living in your armpits eat that and metabolize it … into stinky odour."

Proof that perspiration and hair dye don't mix: An embattled Rudy Giuliani lets them see him sweat during a news conference in the final days of Donald Trump's presidency. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

"I don't know if it's good news or bad news, but the odour that you have in your armpit is not actually yours. It's the responsibility of all the bacteria living in your armpits," said Everts.

In the final analysis, it's all a perfectly natural and necessary function of the healthy human body.

"Humans have wasted too much energy throwing shade at our perspiration," Everts said. "We could all use a perspiration pep talk, myself included." 

Too many of us never want to be caught with a sweat patch, but that's just something the human body does -- it produces sweat. 10:26

Evert's work has resulted in a book called The Joy of Sweat, to be published this July.

She'll be talking about the smelly subject in Carleton University's virtual Science Café: The Science of Sweat, Wednesday, Jan. 27 at 1:30 p.m. Click here to register for free.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now