We all sweat, but there’s something about stress that makes us break out into the kind of sweat that we worry everyone can see — and worse — smell.
But rest assured. When your stress level rises and you begin to feel the sweat building under your arms, it’s probably not as obvious to others as you think.
Still, stress sweat is a slightly different beast than sweat that happens when you’re overheated. Read on to learn more about why stress sweat smells different and how to manage it.
Why does stress sweat happen?
Stress is your body’s natural response to a perceived threat. It triggers a rush of adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones. It also causes your heart rate to increase and your muscles to tense to help you prepare for a fight.
As for sweat, it’s secreted by your sweat glands to:
- help cool your body
- balance your body’s electrolytes and fluids
- hydrate your skin
Your sweat glands are activated by nerves which can be sensitive to emotions, hormones, and other stressors. When you feel stress, your body temperature rises, prompting your sweat glands to kick in.
While sweating more when under stress is normal, excessive sweating that affects your confidence or interferes with your life may be due to a medical condition, such as hyperhidrosis. See your healthcare provider to talk about treatment options if you’re concerned that you’re sweating excessively.
Why does stress sweat smell different?
Your body contains anywhere from 2 to 4 million sweat glands, the majority of which are eccrine glands. Eccrine glands cover most of your body, but they’re found in larger numbers on your palms, soles, forehead, and armpits.
When your body temperature rises from physical activity or hot surroundings, your autonomic nervous system signals your eccrine glands to release sweat. This sweat is mostly made of water, with a small amount of salt and lipids mixed in. The sweat cools your skin and helps bring your temperature down.
Then there are the other sweat glands: apocrine glands. Apocrine glands are larger and produce the majority of stress-related sweat.
They’re found in parts of your body with higher numbers of hair follicles, such as your genital area and armpits. Your underarms secrete approximately 30 times more sweat when you’re under stress than when at rest.
Sweat from your apocrine glands tends to be thicker and richer in proteins and lipids. The fats and nutrients in this type of sweat combine with the bacteria that live on your skin, resulting in body odor.
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How can I manage stress sweat?
Stress is an inevitable part of life and you’ll never be able to completely avoid it. But there are a few things you can do next time you find yourself sweating under pressure.
Many people think that deodorant and antiperspirant are the same, but they actually serve very different functions. Deodorant simply masks the smell of your sweat with a different odor.
Antiperspirants, on the other hand, contain ingredients that temporarily block your sweat pores, reducing the amount of sweat secreted onto your skin.
Taking a daily bath or shower can help to reduce the growth of bacteria on your skin. The less bacteria there is on your skin to interact with the sweat secreted, the less body odor you’ll produce.
Be sure to dry your skin completely after bathing because warm, damp skin encourages the growth of bacteria and fungi.
Keep hair trimmed
Underarm and pubic hair can trap sweat, oil, and bacteria. Trimming or shaving the hair in these areas will not only reduce the amount of odor-causing bacteria, but will also make it easier for your antiperspirant to reach your skin and do its job.
Removing hair under the arms may also reduce sweat volume, according to a small 2015 study.
Wear sweat pads
Sweat pads are thin, absorbent, shields that attach to the insides of your shirts to soak up underarm sweat. Wear these on days when you know your stress level may be higher. Toss a few extras in your bags for emergencies.
Underarm pads won’t prevent stress sweat, but they’ll help to prevent underarm stains on your clothes. Some popular products you can find on Amazon include Kleinert’s Underarm Sweat Pads Disposable Sweat Shields and PURAX Pure Pads Antiperspirant Adhesive Underarm Pads.
Is there any way to prevent it?
The only way to keep stress sweat from happening is to keep your stress levels in check. This is easier said than done, but there are several techniques that can help.
A number of studies have found that chewing reduces stress. A 2009 study found that people who chewed gum in moments of stress had lower cortisol levels in their saliva and reported reduced state of stress and anxiety.
Keep a pack of chewing gum on hand and have a piece when you feel your stress level rising.
Try a deep breathing exercise the moment you begin to feel tense. Techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing can quickly reduce stress and promote relaxation and calm, according to research.
The technique involves taking a long, slow breath and allowing your diaphragm to expand your belly as you inhale, and then exhaling completely before repeating the process.
Listen to music
Research shows that music can promote relaxation and relieve stress and anxiety. Listening to music before a stressful event may help keep your stress from getting too high.
If possible, slip on some headphones and listen to a few minutes of music you enjoy before or during times of stress. Music can also be a great way to decompress after a stressful event.
Have a quick chat
Talking to a friend or loved one can quickly reduce your stress. Studies have found that sharing your feelings with someone can lower stress, especially if it’s someone emotionally similar to you.
Give a friend or loved one a call if you feel your stress increasing or commiserate with a colleague who may be feeling the same way.Bottom line:
Stress sweat happens to everyone. Times of stress can cause you to sweat more and that sweat smells different because of the way it interacts with the bacteria on your skin. Some simple tricks to keep your stress at bay and a few tweaks to your grooming routine can help you keep stress-related sweat in check.Reference:
Bradt J, et al. (2013). Music for stress and anxiety reduction in coronary heart disease patients. DOI:
James AG, et al. (2013). Microbiological and biochemical origins of human axillary odour. DOI:
Liotta EA. (n.d.). Stress sweat.
Ma X, et al. (2017). The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. DOI:
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017). Sweating and body odor.
Scholey A, et al. (2009). Chewing gum alleviates negative mood and reduces cortisol during acute laboratory psychological stress. DOI:
Shibasaki M, et al. (2011). Mechanisms and controllers of eccrine sweating in humans.
Smith AP. (2016). Chewing gum and stress reduction. DOI:
Townsend SSM, et al. (2013). Are you feeling what I’m feeling? Emotional similarity buffers stress. DOI:
Troccaz M, et al. (2015). Mapping axillary microbiota responsible for body odours using a culture-independent approach. DOI:
Understanding sweating. (n.d.).
Photo Credit: Nathan Dumlao