Smells and Science Mix in ‘Sweat Joy’

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Science journalist Sarah Everts notes in “The Joy of Sweat,” an entertaining and enlightening guide to the necessity and virtues of sweating, that many people pay well to wick sweat away and also pay well to hide it. Saunas, spin classes and hot yoga, yes; but also deodorant, dress shields, and antiperspirants that deliberately create what Everts (vividly and unappetizingly) calls “sweat-pore plugs.”

“This vital life process that we all have, that helps make us human, is considered shameful and unprofessional,” Everts writes. “How did it happen?”

Sweat helps us survive. The human body produces a lot of heat, even when it seems like it is not doing anything. Start moving and pushing yourself, especially when the weather itself is hot and your body will produce even more. Our eccrine glands, which Everts describes as “small, long tubes embedded in the skin” and with “wide spiral tubes” at their base, release fluid that evaporates from our warm skin. Without this mechanism, our bodies succumb to heatstroke, organs fail, blood bleeds, bacteria break the intestinal walls.

Then there’s another type of sweat that comes from the larger apocrine glands found in places like the armpits and groin. These glands secrete “waxy, oily molecules” that are particularly attractive to bacteria, which feast on chemical waste-producing bacteria. It stinks of waste. Sensory analysts have identified component scents in human armpit odor, such as “stinky butter” and “wet dog.”

But the human cooling mechanism could be much worse, says Everts—less effective and even more fragrant. Non-human animals either do not sweat or do not sweat as efficiently as we do. (“Sweating like a pig” not we’ll have to roll in the mud to stop the overheating.) Some scientists suggest it’s our cooling system that allows humans to forage for hours in the sunlight while predators perish in the shade. Everts tries to shock us by pointing out alternative methods for cooling. We can pee on ourselves (like seals) or vomit on ourselves (like bees) or defecate on our own feet (like storks). Instead, we release sweat, a passive act with the added benefit of not creating our own heat.

Credit…Joerg Emes

Everts is a lively and lively writer; He has a master’s degree in chemistry, as well as the ability to translate complex scientific processes into accessible terms. He attributes his scientific breaks to scenes where he does some unexpected things around the world – getting his armpits smelled by an analyst in New Jersey, attending a “scent date” event in Moscow, watching a man caught in a vapor of dry ice. During a “sauna theater” performance in the Netherlands.

It dispels some persistent sweating myths, including one that equates sweating with detoxification. The book opens with the story of a South African nurse whose sweat is red because she loves NikNaks Spicy Tomato corn chips and consumes six bags of red snacks a day. But the anecdote turns out to be a bit of a red herring (sorry); Everts is just warming up (again, sorry). “Since the human body naturally exudes,” Everts writes, “perspiration is not the reason why your body intentionally expels toxins.”

Most of our sweat-related hang-ups turn to odor issues. This is especially true in the United States, where the analyst sniffing Everts’ armpits observed that, unlike the expert’s hometown of France, fragrance consumers seek to “eliminate” their body odor rather than complement it. Our sense of smell isn’t exactly one-note, though. Everts also examines the cultural obsession with pheromones and the idea that scent messages are somehow irreducibly real. We can try to cover them up, but we can’t calibrate them – so the olfactory dating thing or the sale of pheromone colognes that are supposed to make men irresistible to women, although their effectiveness is questionable. “The problem is that these products attract a horny sow rather than a horny sow,” Everts writes.

For obvious reasons, this is a summer book, and Everts takes it lightly, even if its subject inevitably has serious consequences. In a passage where “we can, at least theoretically, smell another person” in various ways where human greetings allow for a momentary increased intimacy, Covid-19 is simply passing through. Another passage about anosmia – the inability to smell – does not mention the pandemic, even if loss of smell is one of the coronavirus symptoms.

The biggest crisis on the subject, which Everts openly admits at many points, is global warming. “Our ability to sweat may be the basis of the resilience we will need to weather the impending climate apocalypse,” he writes, but the excess humidity that comes with changing weather patterns can make our sophisticated cooling mechanism controversial. Sweat cannot evaporate when it is too humid.

Not to mention that global warming could melt some ancient plagues out of the permafrost, including some mysterious sweating diseases like Picardy Sweat that may have killed Sweate or Mozart in medieval England in five to six hours.

Understandably, Everts distracts the reader from staring too long into the existential abyss. He is as impressed by the uncertainties of his subject as by the certainties he can detect. One thing I couldn’t stop thinking about was how each person’s individual scent combined with another person’s individual scent receptors. “Even if you think you know your own smell,” he writes, “you may not know how others experience it”—a fear or comfort depending on how you see (or smell) it.

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