For SELF, by Amy Marturana.
I will never be a woman who can spend a full hour working out hard in the morning, and then after, spritz some dry shampoo on her hair and saunter off to the office looking presentable. The problem isn’t my hair — it’s straight and easy to manage, which I am grateful for. It’s the sweat. After any workout, it looks like I just dunked my head under a shower.
Why do I sweat so much? I ask myself this question on a near-daily basis. Every time I’m working out with other people, I notice that they do not suffer from the same level of sweatiness as I do. It’s not just head sweat — arm, back, butt, and chest sweat show up to the party, too. I’ve written about excessive sweating before, a medical condition called hyperhidrosis (more on that later), and I don’t have those telltale symptoms, which occur when there’s no reason to be sweating.
My problem is that I really just sweat a lot more than other people when I’m working out.
Turns out, there are a ton of things that can influence how much a person sweats — which makes it impossible to pinpoint one reason to explain why I sweat so much.
Sweat is an important mechanism our bodies use to regulate body temperature, Nigel Taylor, Ph.D., founding director of the Centre for Human and Applied Physiology at the University of Wollongong Australia School of Medicine, tells SELF. “All living beings produce heat; it is the natural consequence of converting stored chemical energy (carbohydrates and fats) into mechanical and other forms of energy,” he explains. Our bodies have evolved to store this heat and operate at a certain warm temperature. But if our internal temperature gets too high, it can damage our tissues and even be lethal, Taylor says. “To prevent that, we evolved with mechanisms to dissipate body heat,” such as sweating. Sweat cools us internally as it evaporates off the skin’s surface.
When comparing two different people, both genetics and physiological adaptations have a hand in determining who will sweat more. “A big factor in how much you sweat is genetic, determined by exactly how many sweat glands you have,” Michele Green, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and RealSelf advisor, tells SELF. “It’s also affected by other factors like gender, fitness level, health status, and weight.” Also, exercise intensity, the clothes you’re wearing, and the weather all have a hand in how much you sweat on any given day.
Certain medications, health conditions like diabetes or thyroid problems, and consuming caffeine and alcohol can all increase sweat levels. “Smokers may also sweat more since nicotine can affect your hormones, skin, and brain,” Green says.
When comparing two different people, both genetics and physiological adaptations have a hand in determining who will sweat more.
Interestingly, people who are better at dealing with heat also tend to sweat more.
In any person, the amount of sweat produced is directly proportional to how much the body temperature is rising, Taylor says. But some people’s bodies are just better equipped to deal with heat than others — which means they’ll get sweatier with the same body temperature change. “When we compare individuals, we find some have become heat adapted, and this can often (but not always) mean that they produce more sweat for a given change in body temperature,” Taylor says.
Endurance athletes are a good example of this, he adds. By training the body to withstand a certain amount of physical activity and increase in body temperature (our bodies heat up when we work out and our heart rate rises), “their mechanisms for dissipating heat have become effective,” Taylor explains.
Because they’re better at managing body heat, fitter people are often sweatier. That’s good news for me, I guess?
“In general, fitter people have more pronounced sweating responses,” Taylor says. “Fitter people are able to better tolerate heat (either internally produced heat or environmental heat) because they have adapted their sweating mechanisms to be more effective,” he explains. The downside? They will also get dehydrated more quickly.
Green adds that heavier people also tend to have higher sweat rates—because they have a higher body mass, they have to exert more energy during physical activity; plus, the body has to work harder when there’s more to cool down.
Of course, sweatiness on its own isn’t a great way to evaluate how fit someone is; there are so many other things, including genetics, that can contribute to how much you perspire one way or the other. (Despite knowing this, from now on, I’m probably going to conveniently start using, “I’m just really fit,” to explain why I sweat so much.)
If you sweat a lot when you’re not working out, you may have a condition called hyperhidrosis — it’s worth getting checked out, at least.
Hyperhidrosis typically occurs in the armpits, hands, feet, or head, though it can affect any part of the body. It usually happens in otherwise healthy people (though it can be a side effect of some medical conditions) and for most people, the cause is a mystery. The best guess is that there’s a signaling problem between the brain, nervous system, and sweat glands in a certain area, Raffy Karamanoukian, M.D., RealSelf advisor and LA-based plastic surgeon who specializes in treating hyperhidrosis, tells SELF. Since it’s tough to pin down the cause, treatment options vary and oftentimes patients have to try a few before finding something that works.
This type of excessive sweating that may require treatment is different from just being a sweaty mess after a workout. Hyperhidrosis, Taylor notes, is a type of non-thermal sweating — which means it’s not your body responding to excess heat. If you sweat when your body doesn’t need to be cooled, notice one area of the body is dripping while the rest remains dry, and most importantly, sweat so much that it interferes with your daily life, it’s worth visiting a dermatologist to be evaluated for hyperhidrosis.
If you just sweat more than the other people in your gym class, that’s totally normal — and probably just how it’s going to be.
You can’t exactly change your body’s heat production and cooling system. Sure, if you’re overweight and lose some weight, you may notice a change in how much you sweat. But considering there’s a correlation between higher fitness levels and more sweat, becoming more physically fit isn’t always going to be a solution either.
“There are surgical procedures for people with true clinical conditions,” Taylor says, “but most people should be pleased that they are sweating; it’s proof they are alive and that they have just done physical work.” I’ll just have to keep reminding myself of that as I continue to be the sweatiest student in barre class. Worse things have happened.
More From SELF: