Understanding the distinction between stress sweat and regular sweat is crucial, especially for those navigating lives marked by occasional or prolonged stress. As a dermatologist with a penchant for stress and its effects, I find it essential to explore why stress sweat tends to have a more pungent odor and offer practical tips for managing it. In this discussion, I'll delve into the scientific aspects to equip you with tools that can alleviate the unmistakable signals emanating from your armpits when you're facing challenges head-on and aiming to maintain composure.

What is stress-induced sweating?

Stress sweat refers to the excessive sweating prompted by factors such as stress, anxiety, and pain. This type of perspiration is most pronounced in areas like the armpits, palms, feet, and face, but it can affect the entire body. It is quickly activated by adrenaline, the hormone associated with fear and the 'fight or flight' response, specifically stimulating the apocrine sweat glands responsible for body odor. Additionally, stress sweat is triggered by the standard neurotransmitter that activates other sweat glands, known as eccrine glands. The distinct characteristic of stress sweat lies in its potent odor, which can be perceptible to those around you.

What are the signs of stress-induced sweating?

Symptoms of stress sweat include noticeable sweat stains in the armpits, heightened body odor, clammy and cold sweaty palms, perspiration on the feet leading to damp socks, and the sensation of sweat running down the back and face. These manifestations suggest that stress, anxiety, and/or pain are activating your sweat glands. To gain a better grasp on and manage stress sweat effectively, it's beneficial to have some knowledge about the various types of sweat glands and how their secretions differ when influenced by stress.

How does "stress sweat" distinguish itself from ordinary perspiration?

To comprehend the distinction between stress sweat and regular sweat, it's essential to grasp the mechanisms behind your skin's production of typical perspiration. The sweat glands responsible for stress sweat differ from those generating regular sweat. Your skin harbors three distinct types of sweat glands, each varying in the nature of their secretions, their location on the skin, and the specific conditions that prompt them to release sweat onto your skin.

1 - Eccrine Sweat Glands

These serve as your primary sweat glands, being the most abundant on your skin and covering nearly all areas of your body.

FAQ: You have the highest concentration of eccrine sweat glands on your palms and soles.

Eccrine sweat glands release a salty water secretion directly onto the surface of your skin. This is the perspiration commonly known as sweat, which drips off your brow, runs down your back, and leads to sweaty palms.

The primary function of eccrine sweat glands is to regulate your body temperature; when it's hot, the salty water covers your skin and evaporates, providing a cooling effect.

The primary trigger for eccrine gland secretion is heat. However, these glands also respond to emotional stress signals, often resulting in sweaty palms during nervous moments.

Although you are born with your complete set of eccrine sweat glands, they don't become active in producing sweat until you reach about 2 to 3 years old. As you progress into adulthood, your eccrine sweat glands gradually spread out as your skin develops.

2 - Apocrine Sweat Glands

These are the pivotal sweat glands responsible for body odor. They distinguish themselves from eccrine sweat glands in significant—and odorous—ways. Chances are, you're already familiar with the specific areas on your skin where these body odor glands are located!

Human apocrine body odor sweat glands can be found:

Apocrine glands open into hair follicles instead of directly onto the skin.


Men possess larger and more active apocrine glands compared to women.

The secretion from apocrine sweat glands, responsible for body odor, initiates during puberty. This secretion is a lipid-rich (oily) substance containing proteins, sugars, and ammonia. Due to its oily nature, stronger soaps and cleansers are needed to remove it compared to non-oily secretions.

What purpose do human apocrine glands serve?

The sweat secretions from apocrine glands play a crucial role as 'chemosignaling' secretions. Humans possess the ability to discern the subtleties of apocrine secretions, making these glands our equivalent of scent glands.

What leads to the distinctive body odor associated with apocrine gland sweat?

Skin bacteria enzymatically break down the lipid-rich apocrine secretions, resulting in the creation of body odor. This is particularly pronounced in the apocrine secretions of the armpits. The primary contributors to the production of 'stress sweat' (also known as 'fear sweat') are your apocrine glands. Therefore, stress sweat is an oily secretion that undergoes enzymatic breakdown by skin bacteria, predominantly originating from your armpits.

What triggers the production of stress sweat by apocrine glands?

Apocrine glands are activated by adrenaline, a hormone produced by your body in response to stress, such as when you are preparing to give a speech.

Stress sweat is swiftly generated in response to heightened stress levels when your body releases adrenaline. Moreover, the intensity of stress sweat corresponds directly to the degree of stress experienced. This establishes a dose-response relationship, indicating that the more intense the stress, the more pronounced the stress sweat.

Notably, there is no evidence to suggest that cortisone, the primary hormonal outcome of prolonged stress, stimulates apocrine sweat glands. Stress sweat results from immediate stress, and the more intense the stress, the more substantial the stress sweat produced by your armpits.

Scientific research has demonstrated that humans can discern stress (or fear) sweat. Even more remarkable is that when individuals perceive someone else's stress sweat, they, in turn, experience stress. In scientific terms, 'stress sweat perception can trigger similar indicators of emotional mimicry in the recipient, such as facial expressions associated with fear and stress.' While this response might be advantageous when facing a bear, it's less helpful during public speaking engagements!