Why Does Sweat (Sometimes) Smell?

Boxer beaded with sweat

Keeping our body at a consistent temperature is an important but sometimes smelly process. A glass of sweat, if you could get one, would have virtually zero odor. But spend anytime in a gym, or in a crowd on a hot day, and you know that sweat stinks. Why? The culprits are your apocrine glands, and the bacteria that live on your skin:

 

How you combat smelly sweat depends on your cosmetic philosophy (that is, how natural of an approach you’re willing to take.)

Most commercial antiperspirants reduce the amount you sweat by using aluminium:

The aluminum ions are taken into the cells that line the eccrine-gland ducts at the opening of the epidermis, the top layer of the skin, says dermatologist Dr. Eric Hanson of the University of North Carolina’s Department of Dermatology. When the aluminum ions are drawn into the cells, water passes in with them. As more water flows in, the cells begin to swell, squeezing the ducts closed so that sweat can’t get out. Each cell can only draw in a certain amount of water, so eventually, the concentrations of water — outside and inside the cells — reach equilibrium. When this happens, the water inside the cell begins to pass back out of the cell through osmosis, and the cell’s swelling goes down.

Deodorants, on the other hand, work by reducing or eliminating the underarm bacteria, either through Triclosan (a chemical antibacterial agent,) or through mineral salts, which prevent the bacteria from multiplying by changing the salinity of your skin.

 

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