Chronicling a lifetime of being sweaty — is it all that bad?
You’re at a swanky party. The temperature seemed fine when you got there. But soon enough, you feel sweat forming on your scalp, your forehead, under your eyes. Panicked, you scan the room but everyone else is as cool as a cucumber. You find a napkin and self-consciously start blotting.
Welcome to my world.
I start dripping the minute I exert myself in the slightest. It can be downright depressing to spend time getting ready, only to turn quickly into a hot mess.
The best/worst example of this was my wedding day. I’d always envisioned an afternoon garden wedding; I didn’t stop to think of the ramifications of scheduling my nuptials in June in the leafy suburbs north of New York City. Of course, it had to rain that morning before turning hot and humid. The hair and makeup artist’s impeccable efforts were undone as soon as I walked down the aisle. During the reception, my sticky situation became so intolerable that I had to excuse myself and rush inside to an air-conditioned bedroom, where my mom, aunts and a couple of friends did their best to repair my face and sopping-wet hair.
Some 20 years later, my marriage over, I returned to the dating scene, where my sweat derailed some potentially sexy moments. The most embarrassing had to be when, during a stroll one steamy Brooklyn night, the gorgeous man I’d been seeing put his arm around me. Under normal circumstances, I would have welcomed his embrace. But feeling him touch my soaked blouse, I pulled away, mortified. I mumbled an explanation and apologized. Good thing we’d already established our mutual attraction or that would have been our last date. It was such a relief when I started seeing a fellow heavy sweater. We quickly figured out a solution; before things got too hot, our first bit of foreplay was him turning the thermostat down — way down.
Before setting out on my daily walk, I always make sure I have a bandanna handy; I need it so I can frequently mop my face and the back of my neck. Even in subzero weather, once I get going, I’m schvitzing. If I’m walking with friends, we’ll all be bundled up but I’ll be the only one breaking a sweat.
I suppose this embarrassing trait started early. But it wasn’t until I was 24, when I moved to Manhattan and started riding the New York subway, that I learned the full capacity of my waterworks. Back in 1984, there was no such thing as air-conditioned cars, so I would step from the platform, a.k.a. Dante’s inferno, into the moving sweatbox. By the time I got wherever I was headed — work, play — I was drenched.
In yet another sexist double standard, while it’s fine — dare I say even sexy to some — for men to sweat, women are only allowed to “glow.”
Until the 1960s, when women like Jane Fonda kicked off the female exercise boom, “sweating was ‘unladylike’ and girls grew up believing that physical exertion would cause their uterus to ‘fall out.’” Just the same, women were and still are expected to limit their sweating to when they’re engaged in high-intensity sports like running, tennis or pumping iron. (The occasional grunt is even allowed.)
I’ve grilled all my doctors about my condition, but none could give me a cause until recently, when my new endocrinologist suggested I see a dermatologist. It turns out heavy sweating is, in fact, a medical condition, and there are specialists who treat it.
But is sweat all that bad? As it turns out, the answer is no.
“Sweating is one of the body’s main mechanisms for staying cool, ensuring that our internal temperature doesn’t rise to a harmful level,” Dr. Alisha Plotner, a dermatologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, told Everyday Health. “When our skin develops moisture on the surface, that moisture is evaporated and cools the skin.”
I’d already hypothesized that my constant hydration moisturizes my skin, which, despite my years as a sun worshipper — including summers on the lifeguard stand, bathed in baby oil — remains relatively wrinkle-free at 62 Turns out, I was right. According to Dermatology Consultants of Frisco, “Sweat does have some positive benefits to your skin. It moisturizes and cools the skin. Regular exercise and normal sweat production have been shown to have anti-aging effects.” If normal sweat levels have this benefit, I must be producing the friggin’ fountain of youth.
Real Simple goes even further. For one thing, sweat apparently makes you happy. According to Sarah Everts, the author of The Joy of Sweat: The Strange Science of Perspiration, “When you’re hot, your heart picks up its pumping pace. This is done so that hot blood from the interior can swoosh past the veins near the skin, get cooled down by sweating, and then circle back to cool the interior. This workout for your heart releases happy hormones, like endorphins, that give you a biochemical rush of joy and catharsis.”
While I’m a bit skeptical about this assertion, it’s harder to argue with a Finnish study that found sweating supports the heart. Here’s why: Study subjects who sweated it out some four times a week in a sauna “not only had lower sudden cardiac death but lower fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.” Woot! Maybe this sweating thing isn’t so bad, after all.
Another pro: Sweating can be a sign of athleticism. According to Everts, “Athletes typically sweat sooner and more voluminously than inactive people, and more than the athlete would have prior to starting training. That’s because athletic bodies learn that when this individual gets active, they really get active and it’s best to start the cooldown strategy pronto.” Caveat: She’s talking about heavier but not excessive sweat. That’s a sign of hyperhidrosis.
It turns out some serious underlying medical issues can cause hyperhidrosis. They include certain neurological conditions such as a brain injury after a stroke, hormonal changes like those associated with menopause and diabetes, and certain hormone drugs, but none of these apply to me.
In fact, most of the time, Plotner says, excessive sweating isn’t associated with any health condition. Instead, it’s caused by overactivity of the normal neurological pathways that cause it. This primary hyperhidrosis often runs in families. Aha! My father was a heavy sweater and I’ve recently noticed my aunt, his sister, is, too. Thanks, genes!
Funny thing is, I don’t smell; I just sweat. I don’t even need deodorant anymore. (Interesting aside: Deodorant and antiperspirants only became a thing at the beginning of the 20th century, when advertisers convinced Americans they smelled bad. Until then, most Victorians women’s attempts to tame their B.O. involved regular washing, dousing themselves with perfume and wearing dress shields.)
There are treatments for excessive sweating but people who go that route may have problems so extreme they actually impede their work by, say, making it difficult to type. (I suppose I should count my blessings; at no time during the writing of this article did my palms get sweaty.) Also, I already take enough meds; I don’t need the added risks associated with the topicals, oral drugs or injections used.
So I’ll just keep letting them see me sweat — and stop sweating the small stuff.