You're not imagining it: Stress sweat actually might smell worse than sweat you produce from exercising. Health's medical editor weighs in about why this happens.
Some people do notice they give off an extra-foul stench when they’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious. A little background info: The purpose of sweating is to regulate body temperature; with stress sweat, a shift in hormones, such as adrenaline, causes the body to have a fightor-flight response that leads to excessive sweating. But there are two main types of sweat glands, and they produce different types of sweat. When you exercise, you produce sweat, consisting mainly of water and salt, from eccrine glands all around the body that open on the surface of the skin in order to cool you down. When you’re stressed out, sweat gets produced by apocrine glands, which are located in spots on the body that have lots of hair follicles. While all sweat is odorless, the perspiration produced in the areas where we have hair follicles, such as the armpits and the groin, smells bad when it leaves the follicles and combines with bacteria on the skin’s surface. This sweat also contains fats and proteins, which the bacteria likes to feed on.
So, controlling stress in general will keep body odor at bay in high-anxiety moments. Have stress management techniques—some deep breathing, a quick meditation in a quiet room at the office, you know the drill—in place that you can use, say, before a big presentation. And avoid overdoing it on caffeine during stress spirals; it can cause blood pressure and heart rate to rise and can make stress symptoms even worse.
Also, if you’re worried about stress sweat ruining a moment, try a clinical strength antiperspirant-deodorant (tons of options are available at the drugstore; we like Secret Clinical Strength) at night, when your armpits are drier and the pores will take in the product better—and reapply in the morning.
Health’s medical editor, Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, is assistant professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine.