Let’s get it over with. We all sweat.
Sure, deodorant and antiperspirants do their jobs, in most cases, to limit pongs and even stop them being made. But, the fact remains that sweat, and everything that comes with it, has a bodily purpose and meddling with it could be counterproductive.
Contrary to popular belief, sweat doesn’t smell. Yeh, you heard right. The sweat that we secrete from glands all over our body is odourless. It is, in fact, the bacteria that feeds on this sweat that creates any, let’s say, unpleasant aromas.
So why is it that certain places sweat more than others? The skin under our arms, on our hands and feet, and around our elbows all sweat more than, say, our forearms or legs. Why is that?
Well firstly, those areas have more sweat glands, so it figures that we sweat more from them. What’s more, humans have two types of sweat gland, the apocrine and eccrine glands. Eccrine glands produce sweat that odour-producing bacteria turn their noses up at, whereas apocrine glands produce a sweat that is full of the fats and proteins they like. The areas where we sweat more tend to have more apocrine glands - so produce more sweat for odour-producing bacteria to live on.
If creating a feast for odour-producing bacteria wasn’t enough, the areas where we sweat most are also the most hospitable to bacteria. You’ll notice that your pits, feet and fingers are more regularly covered up, be it by clothes, other skin, shoes or objects that we hold and use. By covering up the skin, we are also depriving it of oxygen - which, coincidentally is the perfect home for our odour-producing friends.
And voila, the combination of more sweat glands and less oxygen makes places like your pits the perfect environment for stinky bacteria to live and reproduce in, and that can have only one consequence…. Body odour. But, before you douse your skin in anti-bac, that bacteria isn’t necessarily a bad thing...
Humans have traditionally approached bacteria as an enemy that must be eradicated, but a growing number of scientists are finding there might be an evolutionary reason why our bodies harbour millions of different microbes. After all, why would we have developed to need constant showering, preening, cleansing and moisturising? Maybe the bacteria that lives on our bodies has a purpose that we’re washing down the plughole with every bath we take.
The surface of human skin is home to a diverse community of bacteria called a microflora. Humans each have a unique microflora given to them at birth by their mother. It is believed that the microflora plays a key part in keeping you healthy, and could even help fight disease.
Cosmetic scientist and Lush co-founder Helen Ambrosen explains: “We have to have our coating of microflora otherwise pathogenic organisms can get onto the skin and harm us. When a pathogen appears on the skin, your natural microflora all get together to get rid of it. We have to have them, but one of the side effects is that they break down the sweat and sebum and make us smell.”
And there lies the problem. Nobody wants to smell bad, so, as modern technology and hygiene methods have developed, humans have got really good at getting rid of smells. So good in fact that soaps, shampoos and antiperspirants can completely clean away or kill that ‘good bacteria’.
Antiperspirants are designed to block your sweat producing glands and stop them making it, which, in turn, starves the odour-making bacteria and kills it off before it can create any nasty smells.
But, ridding your body of bacteria completely comes at a price, as a study in PeerJ suggests. The study, albeit small, found that use of antiperspirant, while effective at reducing the amount of bacteria living on the skin, could increase the amount of ‘smelly’ bacteria - in effect making you smell worse than if you didn’t use it at all.
But, even if the bacteria that’s living on your body is friendlier than Casper the Friendly Ghost, you probably want to stay smelling clean and fresh - if only for the benefit of the pals that spend time with you. How can you do both?
Helen says: “There has to be a happy medium where you are not destroying all of the natural microflora, but you’re not letting it get out of control.”