SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
October 26, 1981
From the beginning of time, an amazing number of poets, prophets, preachers, politicians, playwrights, philosophers, etc., have found something noble, something glorious, even something heroic to say about human sweat. The book of Genesis equated it with life: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground." Hesiod saw sweat as greasing the path to perfection: " front of excellence the immortal gods have put sweat, and long and steep is the way to it, and rough at first." Longfellow raised sweating to an essential American virtue in The Village Blacksmith:
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October 26, 1981

The Story Of Sweat: A Warm, Intimate Tale Told In An Inoffensive Manner

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Unfortunately, that isn't possible because of the apocrine glands, which are found in a relatively few places—mainly in the armpits and on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Although they are present at birth, they don't become active until puberty. Children sweat pretty much pristine eccrine fluid; they don't become deodorant or antiperspirant consumers until they are about 13 years old. And in old age the apocrine glands gradually become less active for reasons not clearly understood, but probably related to a decrease in sex hormones.

No one is quite sure exactly what these apocrine glands are all about. Their secretion process is slow and skimpy, unlike the constant cooling wash of eccrine sweat. For long periods they don't do anything at all, and they seem to be activated only by a particular section of the brain and nervous system. The apocrine glands usually begin to operate suddenly under conditions of anxiety, fear or mental stress, such as anticipation of pain. Says Sheehan: "These glands go into action at the instant of any emotional distress. They can be triggered by any crisis, be it at home or on the job.... The irony is that the apocrine glands are vestigial organs, which means that anatomists don't know why we have them. They have no apparent function in the human, but like the appendix we still have to contend with them. One way to contend with them is to get rid of the trigger mechanisms of fear and anxiety and guilt and apprehension."

Kuno, too, was puzzled by so-called emotional sweating, writing that certain "phenomena accompanying emotion, such as constriction of the skin vessels, goose skin and glycemia are identical with those appearing in the cooling of the body, but contrary to those induced by heating. It seems very strange that both [thermal and emotional] agents act in the same sense in the provocation of sweat." Kuno went on to point out that so-called cold sweat is the product of emotional or sensory stimuli. He found that what could cause cold—or emotional—sweat to rush to the pores of the armpits, palms and soles included doing complex arithmetic problems in one's mind, reading difficult books, "emotion created by unexpected news," uneasiness over the expectation of painful stimulation, and moderate pain sensations, such as a mild electric shock or touching a hot light bulb.

These are about as far as one can get from the hard manual labor that brings sweat to the blacksmith's brow. Yet some investigators believe that these apparently useless, anxiety-excited glands played a big role in human evolution. Galligan, for example, suggests that emotional sweating was once a significant factor. "If you take the skin and wet it, its coefficient of friction goes up," he says. "It's 8.5 times higher on slightly wet skin than it is on dry. So if you happen to be gripping something—a spear or a club or, say, a rock—and suddenly you notice a mastodon or a saber-toothed tiger charging at you, the sweat in your palms will give you a better grip on your weapon, won't it? Of course, if thermal sweat is added to this emotional sweat, the palm will become too wet, and the ability to better grip an object will be lost—as with a slippery tennis racket. Also, some emotional sweat on the soles of your feet will give you better friction with the ground that would allow you to run more quickly, to get off to a faster start and to avoid slipping in front of whatever beast or monster is chasing you. And the lubrication from sebum, an oily substance from the sebaceous glands found in the hairy areas under the arms and between the legs, possibly worked to ease friction and prevent chafing when running away from—or after—something. I think it's very possible that our ancestors survived back in the Stone Age because of apocrine sweat. The better our ancestors sweated, the fitter they were to survive."

Kuno pointed out that the habit of spitting on one's hands to prepare for physical exercise or hard work is physiological, not ethnological, in origin, as shown by the fact that it is an almost universal practice.

The explanation for why sweat occurs on human palms or soles can probably be traced back to the fact that many animals produce a form of sweat on the pads of their feet at times of alarm or stress, presumably to get better traction.

As for the mysterious presence of apocrine glands in the armpits, they might be a leftover from when man's ancestors needed a sexy scent to attract a partner. Apocrine sweat could be the vestige of a kind of human pheromone, a hormonal substance containing sexual communicators that are released by many insects as well as higher animals. If so, humans would be the only creatures to have their sexual communications system in the armpits rather than in the vicinity of the sex organs. Kuno thought this might be so, because "The human race is inferior to the majority of mammals in the sensitiveness of the olfactory organ, and, according to Schiefferdecker, this is because man has cultivated the habit of walking on foot.... Animal scents useful for their life are usually left on the ground and can be traced by animals as their nostrils are in a position not far from the ground." Kuno went on to suggest that as man's immediate ancestors slowly rose from all fours and took to walking on what had been their hind legs, their noses got farther and farther from the ground and, thus, the scents used to attract a mate got farther away, too.

And with the nose located five feet above the ground, the axilla "is in an advantageous position" wrote Kuno, and that's the reason armpit secretions developed in man. "If it be true that the axillary scent has an attraction for the other sex," said Kuno, "the sudden discharge of the axillary scent at emotional stimuli is of great significance."

Even the cautious panel of experts who contributed to the FDA pamphlet on antiperspirants stated that it was possible that a human pheromone might well be wafting from armpits even today: "Consider the evidence that might suggest that the adult human axilla is a useful, functioning source of sexual attractant. Axillary sweating functions apart from the usual thermo-regulatory sweating system. It is stimulated by emotional signals, not just heat. It becomes active only after puberty. The combination of a potentially odorous substrate; a hospitable, warm, moist environment for the requisite bacterial growth; a large volume of evaporate vehicle for odor dissemination; and a wicklike tuft of hair all point to an efficient system for broadcasting chemical signals.... Obviously, discussions of putative human pheromones are now no more than speculative, but this Panel feels that it would be erroneous to dismiss out of hand the presence of useful olfactory exchange between humans or that axillary odor might serve that purpose."

This brings us to the inescapable, ironic and rather sad fact that what may have once been the sweetest, sexiest fragrance known to early man has come to be judged so repulsive that millions are spent each year in hopes of annihilating it. The odors that once marked our hours of greatest bliss are now overwhelmed by the perfumed scents of Right Guard, Old Spice, Secret and Ban. Is this progress?

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