Day 249: Breaking Down Sweat Without Breaking A Sweat

originally published September 5, 2012

Much like the notion of success, today’s article is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, by which I mean beer. Well, maybe that balance is a little inaccurate, I don’t know. Is it warm in here?

Perspiration, that cruel bitch of a body function that can define an embarrassing business presentation or an inspire a bikini/fireman calendar shoot, dribbled its fetid stink-juice into Wikipedia’s Random Article button today. And so we venture into the pits of research. Forgive me if we don’t come out of this smelling like baby powder.

Sweat, which unsurprisingly emerges from our sweat glands, contains three chemical compounds. The first is 2-methylphenol, which goes by the stage name ‘o-cresol’. Cresol shows up in crude oil, wood preservatives, and Sharpie markers. It can be used as a disinfectant – it’s actually a key ingredient of Lysol. This argument won’t carry much weight when you refuse to wipe down your machine at the gym though, trust me.

Also showing up in perspiration is 4-methylphenol, known as p-cresol. This stuff is the reason that pigs smell funny. This is the part of your sweat that seduces female mosquitoes into wanting to hump your flesh with their proboscises.

The other chemical seeping through your flesh-holes is urea. That’s right, that same nitrogen-rich compound that puts the ‘P’ in your pee is also oozing from your armpits in a stain-inducing cascade of human waste. This is why ‘sweating’ is also called ‘skin-pissing’.

Sweaty people are not necessarily stinky people. Speaking as someone who is unhealthily paranoid about his personal odor, yet breaks a sweat over a half-flight of stairs or a spicy chicken wing, I need to emphasize this. It’s the bacteria on your skin that feeds on the sweat, that’s what launches your unholy funk unto the world.

If you hate your own sweat (and really, who doesn’t?), blame your hypothalamus. This little squiggly blob in the middle of your brain keeps track of your sleep cycles, your hunger, your thirst, and your body temperature. When your temperature goes up, your hypothalamus shoots some sweat into the outside world, counting on a process called evaporative cooling to chill things.

Essentially, the heat from your body is causing the sweat on the surface of your skin to evaporate. This expelling of heat cools you off. If the air around you is particularly humid, it won’t be as gracious in soaking up your sweat, and instead of evaporation you’ll just sit there and roast, wondering if your insides are turning into liquid.

This is behind the technology of air conditioning. This is also why people bitch about the humidity. Well, this and the fact that people love to complain about the weather, even when it isn’t destroying their property or carrying their loved ones away in a cyclonic breeze.

(at least it’s not humid)

Dogs accomplish their water evaporation cool-downs through the act of panting, which performs the same function, only through the oral cavity and pharynx instead of all over the skin. We needn’t be envious – it’d save us a mint on antiperspirant costs, but as a species we’d be even funnier-looking than we are now.

Sometimes you don’t need blistering heat, excessive physical effort or an intensely-seasoned poultry dish to break out in skin-piss. Sometimes all you need is an attractive member of the opposite sex or an imminent rectal exam to get the juices flowing. When this happens you’ll see the sweat accumulate in your palms, the soles of your feet, your armpits and occasionally your forehead. Heat or exercise-related sweat shows up on your everything.

If any obsessively neat readers are still following this article, I recommend you flip to another page at this point, perhaps my in-depth exposé on Tetris from last week.

The human body has about 1000 different species of bacteria crawling around its outer layer. Science – or at least the science I feel like listening to today – refer to this as ‘skin fauna’. This is a much nicer way to picture the billion or so grotesque things crawling and oozing about your flesh, isn’t it?

This bacteria munches on your perspiration, then metabolizes it into stinkiness. Mostly, they love to throw wild metabolizing parties in your armpits, which is why the good people at Right Guard, Gillette and Secret bring home such handsome paychecks every week. Specifically, they break down the lipids in your sweat into tinier molecules, like butyric acid.

Butyric acid is the good stuff. You may not be able to pick a butyric acid molecule out of a lineup, but you know its stench. In concentrated form it can be used in fishing bait, or as a nausea-inducing form of chemical warfare. Anti-abortionists have used the stuff at abortion clinics.

The name for butyric acid comes from the Latin word for ‘butter’, because that’s where it was first discovered. Yes, this same molecule that can end a first date with a single whiff is also found in milk. It’s the molecule that gives Parmesan cheese its distinctive scent. It’s also the reason vomit smells so sharply unpleasant.

Grotesque as the topic may seem, body odor is actually a pretty interesting science. Mothers can identify their children by body odor. Preadolescent kids can detect their siblings through an unconscious trigger related to smell. And of course there’s the argument for pheromones, those dastardly little libido-sparkers that tickle our brains under the cover of undetectable scent.

(I just have to smell your armpits)

A Swedish study isolated two scents linked with sexual arousal – one male and one female. They discovered that gay males responded to the smells in the same way as straight women. The other side of the coin showed a similarity between the responses of straight men and gay women. Hopefully this enlightens some folks who have been a little slow in picking up on this little morsel of science – it’s hard to pray away biology.

So despite its inopportune displays of darkened fabric beneath our armpits, or its link to the populace of gross little micro-beings on our skin, it seems that sweat is a good thing. If it wasn’t for skin-pissing, we’d bake like a potato the moment the temperature rose above that of a comfy room. Let that be a comfort to you next time you have to speak to the board of directors while Lake Superior accumulates under your armpit.

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