The sticky truth about sweat

02:48, Feb 17 2013
No sweat
NO SWEAT: When did perspiration become a dirty word?

A few Saturdays ago, Rosemary Moore was repainting her bedroom. Butter yellow, with white accents. As she lifted her brush to the wall, she noticed a rivulet of water. She glanced up – no leaks. She raised her paintbrush – and it happened again.

‘‘Water was pouring out my rubber glove!’’

That day, the temperature in her West Auckland roof hit 43 degrees. It was hot.

According to the adage, animals sweat, gentlemen perspire and ladies glow. But on that Saturday, Rosemary was most definitely sweating.

And now we’re two-thirds through February, that sunniest, most settled of months. Students swelter in classrooms, office workers curse inevitable air conditioning breakdowns and record temperatures are collected (42 degrees Celsius in Rangiora in 1973). We glow, we perspire, we sweat like pigs. It’s only natural – but we don’t like it. 

In 2011, New Zealand imported a record $16 million worth of personal deodorants – up more than $4 million on 2005. The United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics database rated our appetite for antiperspirant 46th in the world, one place behind Slovenia and one ahead of Finland (Germans took out the top spot, spending a whopping $197 million).


One forecast estimates that by 2017, the global deodorants market will be worth $13.8 billion as rising income levels in developing markets drive demand.

Sweat is universal. It’s also natural. So why is it the scourge of modern society?

‘‘People associate sweat with body odour,’’ says Dr Vincent St Aubyn Crump, an Auckland specialist physician with interests in dermatology and allergies. ‘‘We’re always sweating, but it’s not always noticeable.’’

Spicy food and nerves can induce sweating, says Crump, but its main purpose is to regulate body temperature. ‘‘When you sweat, water evaporates from your skin. It’s physics. That evaporation causes skin to cool down.’’

The catch? ‘‘Humidity needs to be low enough for that water to escape. If the outside is already saturated with water, then there’s nowhere for that water to go.’’

It takes up to six weeks to acclimatise to humidity. The traditional sauna that is New Zealand in February just doesn’t last long enough for our bodies to adjust. 

‘‘They reckon we have about four million sweat glands,’’ says Crump. ‘‘And the maximum amount of sweat anyone can produce in a day is between 10-14 litres.’’

It comes from, mostly, our eccrine glands (concentrated on our palms, the soles of our feet and our foreheads), but also from our apocrine glands. The latter kick in at puberty: under our arms, and around our groin and nipples. The sweat here is thicker and creamier, richer in proteins and fatty acids that, once on the skin’s surface, get broken down by ever-present bacteria, causing that most unpleasant side effect of sweat – body odour.

We all sweat, all the time. But about three percent of the population truly suffers. Hyperhydrosis is a condition that causes excessive sweat ‘‘without good cause’’.

‘‘It’s partly a genetic condition,’’ explains Crump. 

‘‘It usually starts as a teenager... when they’re afraid, angry, all of that, it will be worse, but they’ll also get it just sitting down quietly.’’

While regular sweaters reach for deodorants and antiperspirants, botox injections are the preferred line of defence for severe sufferers. ‘‘It cuts off the nerve endings. You need the nerves to stimulate the glands, and the botox just blocks that pathway.’’

Crump says there is a misperception hyperhydrosis sufferers might not be as ‘‘hygienic’’ as those who sweat less. ‘‘We ‘allow’ sweat if someone’s out jogging. But if somebody takes their jacket off and their armpits are dripping wet and it’s the middle of winter... people don’t understand.’’

Sweat is associated with hard, physical work and exercise. Nations were built on it; teams win with it. 

So when did sweat become the bogeyman?


Sunday searched the National Library’s ‘Paperspast’ archive to track the deodorising of our nation. In 1897, reported the Otago Witness, the word sweat ‘‘is almost banished from polite speech’’. Born out, in 1910, when a series of advertisements notes: ‘‘Farmers! Axemen! Blacksmiths! Everyone, in fact, who works hard enough to perspire freely should wear Roslyn Unshrinkable All Wool Flannel.’’ (Way back when, one of the functions of underclothes was to soak up sweat – er, perspiration.)

Search ‘deodorant’ and it seems our forebears were more concerned with sanitising the smell of a growing nation’s sewers than its armpits. Consider this editorial gem: ‘‘Now follow me, well besprinkled first with aromatic vinegar, for my route is through the back slums and alleys of Auckland and ye who breathe the fresh air of the country may require some deodorant shortly. Up this narrow street, guttered by the winter torrents... meanders a stream, bluish-black in colour, a fetid abomination... a dead fowl, oyster shells, cabbage parings...’’ and so on, in an early damnation of what would today be more recognisable as Queen Street.

‘‘Deodorant’’, it appeared, was about neutralising odour on a grand scale – and then, in the 1930s, things got personal. Amolin, the personal deodorant powder, promised to soothe, cool, protect and heal. Hand-drawn advertisements showed women on the golf course with the catch phrase: ‘‘Perspiration is no handicap when odourless!’’

Fast forward and today, Rexona won’t let you down. Dove is three-quarters moisturiser and ‘‘cool is the new hot’’, according to a Cool Charm TV ad. Underlying all this, a singular message: No sweat is good sweat.

‘‘Originally, humans survived because of their distinctive body odour which protected them against predatory animals,’’ says Stephanie Gibson, history curator at Te Papa museum. ‘‘As civilisation began to develop, humans used plants and their extracts to scent their bodies, clothes and houses.’’ (She adds that Europeans were slow to catch on to this trend – soap, a product of Islamic science, wasn’t made in Britain until 1641, and hot water was considered a health risk because it opened the body to poison.)


Te Papa – home of a colossal squid and a super-fast John Britten motorbike – also holds three deodorants, in pristine packaging. Gibson says the products, all dating back to the 1970s, came from the same donor, Andrea Hill, a woman whose house was ‘‘full of the most amazing social history products’’.

Te Papa snapped up the otherwise ‘‘everyday’’ objects. ‘‘It’s about societal attitudes to the body and if we can document how those attitudes change over time, we have a really interesting perspective on history through material culture. Also, the objects people live with and take for granted can evoke quite a lot of nostalgia. 

"They basically prop up our civilisation.’’

Speaking of (loosehead) props... ‘‘Tony Woodcock,’’ confirms Nic Gill, All Blacks strength and conditioning coach. ‘‘He’s a big sweater. And Israel Dagg and Richard Kahui. They’re big boys and they all sweat a lot.’’

Gill, who once measured a six-kilogram sweat loss in rugby player Marty Holah during a super rugby match, says, ‘‘it’s pretty common that guys will lose four kilos in a game.’’

Unsurprisingly, Rexona Men is a major sponsor of the World Cup winning team. Woodcock and Dagg both feature in the TV commercial (‘‘Confidence: nations are built on it, teams succeed from it...’’), but away from the marketing hype, sweat is a serious business for the All Blacks.

‘‘There’s a lot of info out there that shows a loss in body weight results in a loss in performance,’’ says Gill. ‘‘Essentially, that fluid you’re losing comes from your plasma, so if you’re reducing the amount of blood flowing through your body because you’ve lost three or four litres of fluid, then your heart has to work harder to deliver the same amount of oxygen.’’

Sweat contains sodium chloride, but also potassium, calcium, magnesium and trace elements like zinc and copper (controversially, Dr Crump says for most people a balanced diet will take care of topping up these lost components, but he agrees athletes need more specialised rehydration drinks.)

Gill: ‘‘If you’re dehydrated, losing fluids and salt, then your functioning will be impaired somehow – whether that’s mental or cardiovascular strength, it will affect performance to some degree.

‘‘There’s some suggestion that dehydration opens you up to more soft tissue injury. It takes a long time to get back to a hydrated state. If players come in on Monday and they’re not in a good place, they’re potentially 

at risk of hurting themselves because they haven’t properly recovered.’’

Every All Black, he says, receives a different post-game mix of carbohydrates, proteins and amino acids, but common to them all is the need for fluid. And no, says Gill, the post-game changing room doesn’t stink. 

‘‘I’m pretty sure most of the rugby players I deal with would use deodorants – just to smell nice for the ladies! Sweat only smells when it’s stale. When it goes off. It generally doesn’t smell in the changing rooms. There’s normally food in there – all you can smell is pizza and sushi, not BO!''

Sunday Magazine