As we enter that magical time of year when your underwear glues itself to your butt with the determination of an affectionate barnacle, we’re taking a closer look at sweat. What is it? What does it want? From sweatshops and anxiety to the literal drippy stuff itself, this week is all about the perspiration. Now let’s get sweaty.
Sure, sweating can be uncomfortable and humiliating, which is why we spend so much time and money attempting to curb the moisture our bodies produce. Some chronic sweaters even go so far as to get Botox injections to stop their overactive sweat glands from pumping out perspiration. On the other hand, sweating is a necessary bodily function, and life would be an unbearable, parched hell without it.
Sweating, as you almost certainly already know, keeps the body cool. Sweat glands release sweat, and when that sweat evaporates, the skin cools and our internal temperature lowers. Without this ability, dermatologist Anthony Rossi says things can become “very problematic.”
This is, frankly, understating things somewhat: When the body is unable to keep cool, overheating and heat stroke — a potentially fatal condition that can cause the brain and other vital organs to swell — become increasingly possible. In fact, some studies suggest that, especially in cases where patients were exposed to higher temperatures for longer periods of time, heatstroke is associated with a mortality rate between 40 and 62 percent. Without sweating, overheating and heatstroke are virtually inevitable in hot weather or while engaging in any kind of even somewhat strenuous activity, which basically means staying inside with air conditioning and hardly ever moving would be vital to your survival.
Weirdly enough, though, this can actually happen — it’s a fairly rare condition called anhidrosis, with most cases only affecting some portion of the body, meaning many people with it can still live a relatively normal life. Although, as the Mayo Clinic reiterates, “Vigorous exercise, hard physical work and hot weather can cause heat cramps, heat exhaustion or even heatstroke.” In other words, people with this ailment need to take extra care when doing things that might increase their temperature.
Rossi also mentions a condition called ectodermal dysplasia, where the skin and sweat glands, among other body parts, can develop abnormally. Needless to say, when the sweat glands are affected, this can cause problems similar to those caused by anhidrosis. As one study regarding this ailment explains, “The inability to sweat results in intolerance to heat, occasionally causing severe incapacitation and hyperpyrexia [extremely high fever] after only mild exertion or even following just a meal.” The authors also note, “Because of partial or complete absence of sweat and sebaceous glands, the phenotype has smooth, soft, dry and thin skin. Fine linear wrinkles and increased pigmentation are often present around the eyes and mouth. There may be hyperkeratosis [a thickening of the skin] of the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.”
In which case, not only does an inability to sweat lead to a life where you’re basically always on the verge of overheating to the point where your brain implodes, the lack of moisture also messes with how your skin looks and feels.
I’ll take uncomfortable and humiliating over that any day.