Does stress sweat actually smell worse than your normal sweat? Yes — it's not just your imagination!
There are a few scientific reasons why stress sweat smells worse than normal sweat. Let's dive in.
Stress Sweat Explained
Stressful situations like a looming deadline or public speaking activate your nervous system — known as the fight-or-flight center. You sweat as an evolutionary response.
Here’s what happens: When you experience stress, the brain releases adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. The nervous system then signals your apocrine — not eccrine — sweat glands to perspire.
You sweat to compensate for this uptick in activity. Because stress sweat is not tied to your external temperature, you can't control it as easily.
You may have noticed your shirt reeks after a long day at the office. Lucky for your co-workers, stress body odor actually puts off a stronger scent than other types of sweat.
Your body likes to stick around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit and sweats to regulate this internal temperature. But not all sweat is created equal.
Your body experiences two other types of sweat, which produce distinct smells:
Exercise-induced sweat results from — you guessed it — being active. That includes physical activity like jogging, climbing stairs or any other activity that raises your heart rate.
As your body heats up, your internal thermostat (aka the hypothalamus) triggers the central nervous system to release neurotransmitters, which tell the eccrine glands to produce sweat.
As sweat leaves your skin, heat goes with it — helping you maintain a normal body temperature.
Heat-induced sweat is another type of perspiration. For instance, you might sweat extra when sitting outdoors in hot temperatures — even though your body isn’t physically moving.
As your body works to stay at the ideal temperature, your hypothalamus, central nervous system and eccrine glands all communicate to release sweat.
Why Does Stress Sweat Smell Worse?
Here are a few things to blame for that extra pungent body odor:
Did you know stress sweat evolved out of necessity?
Think about it: Putting off a strong, repulsive scent would deter predators who were out to eat you.
There’s also an evolutionary reason your hands get moist (yes, we said it) when stressed. Wet hands helped our ancestors better grasp weapons.
Your body contains two types of stress sweat glands that release different substances and smells. These include:
- Eccrine: Your body contains more than 3 million eccrine glands. Located between hair follicles on the skin’s surface, eccrine glands release an odorless combination of water, salt and electrolytes. The eccrine glands are responsible for exercise and heat sweat. If you suffer from some type of hyperhidrosis, your sweat primarily stems from these glands.
- Apocrine: The apocrine glands are found beneath hair follicles. When stressed, your body secretes an odorless white, milky fluid consisting of water, proteins and fats. Once the fluid mixes with natural bacteria on your skin, the bacteria eat sweat and produce a foul-smelling waste you know as B.O. These glands produce stress-induced sweat — which is why stress sweat smells extra.
Worries About Stress Sweat
To make matters worse, worrying about and smelling stress sweat can trigger you to sweat even more.
But wait, it gets better. Fearing sweat — before it even happens — can also induce stress sweat. Lovely, right?
If you notice stress sweat smells worse than regular sweat, you're not going crazy!
The key to fighting stress sweat and body odor is to attack the source. Of course, eliminating stress is easier said than done. It’s often an unconscious response.
What other ways tips do you have for fighting body odor caused by stress sweat? Learn more on our Stress Sweat resource guide.