#SexEdSaturday: Sweat, Baby, Sweat

#SexEdSaturday is a series where Jessica Smarr answers anonymous questions received in Unhushed classes.

As a teenager, I had at least five turtleneck sweaters, one very embarrassing CD collection, and exactly two sweaty, smelly feet. I mean, they were bad. So bad, in fact, that they once stunk up an entire church bus on the way back from summer camp. After my feet had been identified as the source of the problem, the chaperones made me throw my shoes in the trailer the bus was hauling. It was for the greater good.

I end up telling this story a lot when I teach about puberty. Partly because it illustrates that, yeah, your body is probably going to do things that you find confusing or weird or gross at some point during puberty. And partly to show that it really will be okay. I mean, I stunk up a whole bus and I still managed to grow into a (relatively) functional adult with a job and pets and a Netflix subscription.

When I answer questions about sweat or smells or some of the not-so-fun parts of having a body, I work to create space for feelings of icky-ness, reverence, and everything in between. Because I still hate sweating, but I can appreciate that it’s one of the ways my body takes care of itself. And it’s nice to acknowledge things like that.

So here’s to sweating and smelling bad and puberty ruining your shoes. Here’s to being human.

Q: How do you smell not as good when you’re older?

A: You have puberty to thank for that! We have two primary types of sweat glands – eccrine and apocrine. At birth, only eccrine glands are active. These glands are present over (almost) all of your body and secrete sweat. This sweat is mostly made up of water and is primarily used to help the body regulate temperature.

When puberty begins, one of the first changes that occurs is the activation of apocrine glands. These glands are located in only a few places on the body – mostly, the armpits and the groin. The sweat released by apocrine glands contains a lot more chemicals than the sweat from eccrine glands.

This is good news for the bacteria that reside on our skin, who will consume and break down these chemicals. This is not-so-good news for people, as breaking down these chemicals is what causes the funky, often unpleasant, smell of puberty.

Additionally, all sweat glands are simply more active during puberty. For example, your feet only have eccrine glands. The sweat these glands produce don’t contain as many sweet, sweet chemicals for bacteria to feast on, but they can still make your socks and shoes moist. A damp sock makes a kickin’ home for smelly bacteria and yeast. The increase in sweat production during puberty means you’re more likely to have damp clothes, which are more likely to become a good environment for odiferous bacteria.

If you aren’t a fan of how much sweat your body produces during puberty, the good news is that your sweat glands almost always calm down after puberty. If you are worried about how you smell, here’s a few things that can help:

  • Deodorant and Antiperspirant. Deodorant is used to prevent bad smells, while antiperspirants are used to prevent sweating and smells. These are usually applied under the arms. While some have hypothesized that deodorants and antiperspirants might be related to some negative health outcomes, no real data has supported these claims.
  • Look for clothes made with natural, “breathable” fabrics. Check those labels! Natural fabrics, like cotton, will keep you cooler and less sweaty than synthetic fabrics like polyester. Also, take advantage of all of the hard work done by fabric scientists (or whatever they’re called.) Moisture-wicking fabric is magical.
  • Do some laundry. If you haven’t learned already, now is a great time to find out how laundry is done. Washing and drying your clothes will help keep bacteria from setting up camp and making a stink.
  • Make time for bath time! Daily showers and baths can help keep you smelling fresh. It’s a good idea to pay extra attention to the parts of your body that get the sweatiest.
  • Call the doctor. If you are still uncomfortable with your body’s sweat and smells, talk to your parents about visiting a medical provider. They can provide guidance and extra tools to help keep you a little less sweaty.

Q: This one is really embarrassing but important – I’m a girl and sometimes after I work out it’s a little wet “down there.” I’m not on my period. What the heck is going on?

A: Most likely, that’s good old sweat. Beginning in puberty, most people will find themselves with a sweatier crotch. This seems to be primarily because of the activation of those apocrine glands, which are present in the groin. For people with a vulva, these glands are located on the:

  • Mons pubis, which is the fatty tissue on the pubic bone
  • Outer labia, which is the fatty tissue “lips” around your vaginal opening
  • Perineum, the skin located between the vaginal and anal openings

For people with a penis, these glands are located on the:

  • Scrotum, which is the skin surrounding the testicles
  • Perineum, which is the skin between the scrotum and the anus

The crotch is also just a place that is just inclined to get a little sweatier, because it often gets warmer than other parts of your body. It usually has a couple layers of fabric surrounding it, which can trap in heat. The crotch is also right between your thighs, which have a higher proportion of fat. The fattier parts of our body have an easier time staying warm.

If you are a person with a vulva, it’s often a good idea to change clothes right after you work out. Sweaty clothes can host bacteria that leave you prone to vaginal infections. It’s also best to opt for clothes made out of breathable materials that wick moisture away from the skin.