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Sweating up a stink

If sweating makes you smell bad, then why do babies smell so sweet all the time?

MOST of us have experienced “close encounters of the stinky kind”, especially in tight spaces like the LRT, public buses, lifts or office corridors. We all know that that awful smell comes from a bout of sweating, which is why stinky experiences happen more frequently in the evening after a long working day. If you happen to know more about sweat, you will know that it isn’t really perspiration that smells bad.

It’s the bacteria feeding off the sweat that emits the foul scent. Why is it then that babies never smell so bad, even after sweating profusely?

This is because there are different types of sweat, one of which is produced only after puberty. Little wonder that most mothers know when their “babies” are grown up – they lose their “inno-scents” and start to stink!

That sweat stuff

We are all born with two types of sweat glands. The eccrine glands, located under the skin surface, produce sweat that consists mainly of water and salt. The sweat produced by these glands help to regulate body temperature, functioning as our own in-built “air conditioner”. The eccrine glands produce sweat when the body heats up from physical activity or hot weather. The sweat evaporating from the skin produces a cooling effect on the body, without which we will stay immensely uncomfortable for a longer time.

This is also why babies do not stink when they sweat – it comes from their eccrine glands. The other type of gland is the aprocrine gland. These are located at hairy spots such as under the armpit and at the groin. Although we are born with them, they do not begin functioning until puberty, when body hair starts to grow. Sweat from the apocrine glands is thicker than eccrine sweat and contains fatty acids, salts, cholesterol and protein.

They are secreted when the body is under stress, whether physical or emotional. Apocrine sweat is also released when the body is stimulated, such as during physical exertion or sexual excitement. Releasing aprocrine sweat in large amounts is like an open invitation for bacteria like Staphylococcus epidermis and Staphylococcus aureus to come party. These bacteria break down the sweat and produce bad-smelling by-products that put you on the stink list.

There’s also foot odour, which is the result of sweat trapped between the soles of your feet, and shed on shoes and socks. This sweat contains isovaleric acid, a short-chain fatty acid usually found in cheese and beer, and propionic acid, another fatty acid that smells like vinegar, which are hot favourites for bacteria.

Battling the stink

One of the first things to tell a teenager when they begin producing apocrine sweat is to take bathing and personal hygiene more seriously. Frequent showers will remove the sweat, taking along all the stink-producing bacteria and their wastes. Apart from that, diet control may also help. Foods with strong smells such as onions, garlic, durian, petai, fermented food and red meat tend to make your sweat smell worse because they contain specific odorous compounds.

A study published in the journal Chemical Senses found that vegetarians were perceived to have more pleasant and attractive body odours, compared to meat-eaters. How about spices then?

Although many are strong-smelling as well, they don’t actually make us smell worse. However, eating a bowl of spice-ridden curry or soup will make you sweat more intensely, which again will provide a feast for the bacteria on the skin. Bacterial activity is a natural way to break down the content of sweat and keep us safe from other illnesses. Other tips to battle body odour include changing clothes (especially underwear!) daily, washing towels and bedsheets regularly, keeping stress levels down and eating a healthy diet.

Smokers should also stop smoking as it only makes them smell worse generally, while sports lovers should wear fresh and clean clothing that are bacteria-free. One of the most common ways people tackle body odour is by using antiperspirants, which limit the amount of sweat your underarms produce. In recent years, studies have linked antiperspirant use at armpits to breast cancer. Until more concrete studies are done to prove otherwise, it is better to use more natural ways to battle sweat and body odour.

Avoid wearing clothes that are overly-tight or trap heat (such as polyester) that make you sweat more, and speak to your doctor if certain medications give you body odour. Women undergoing major milestones such as puberty, pregnancy and menopause, may also want to find out if they have hormonal imbalance if they suddenly develop strong body odour. Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with sweating if it doesn’t work up a stink.

You can’t stay a baby forever, but you can continue smelling like one with good personal care habits and a balanced diet!

THE STAR MALAYSIA, June 14, 2014
By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar

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