Stress is an important survival tool. It primes all animals — humans included — to either confront or flee threatening events. Alongside other bodily processes, a person sweats more while experiencing stress.

Stress sweat may have a distinct odor compared with the sweat the body produces during exercise.

In this article, we explain why people sweat during a stress reaction and the reasons behind its unique odor.

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When a person experiences stress, their heart rate and blood pressure increase. They breathe faster and their muscles tense.

They also sweat more to help cool the body. It may be a direct response to stress increasing a person’s body temperature.

These bodily changes occur in response to the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. These hormones help prepare the body’s survival responses to address the cause of the stress.

Sweat glands

A person’s skin contains two types of sweat glands:

  • Eccrine glands produce clear, odorless sweat that evaporates quickly and cools the body. The armpits, feet, palms, forehead, and cheeks contain eccrine glands.
  • Apocrine glands are larger glands that produce a thicker fluid. The fluid may carry more of an odor after interacting with bacteria on the skin. The genitals and armpits contain apocrine glands.

Both types of sweat glands respond to nerve signals that react to emotions, hormones, and messages from the brain that address body heat. Physical activity also stimulates these nerves.

The apocrine glands respond directly to norepinephrine, a hormone that circulates during stress responses. The thicker sweat these glands produce may react with bacteria on the skin and create the stronger odor people may associate with stress sweat.

The stronger odor may serve a purpose as part of a person’s survival instinct.

According to a small 2012 study, 14 participants identified neutral faces as angry more often when they could also smell stress sweat. This was not the case for exercise sweat.

Researchers suggest that stress sweat odor may cause a person having a stress reaction to pay more attention to triggers and factors in the environment that may pose a threat.

One 2022 study identified the distinctive odor of study participants in stressful interview conditions as smelling “similar to stir-fried leeks.”

There is no way to sweat less in response to stress; it is part of how humans respond to danger.

However, people can apply widely accessible measures to manage body odor if they find it unpleasant. These include:

  • Using antiperspirants: People can use antiperspirants to reduce the amount of sweat they produce by blocking pores. Antiperspirants are not the same as deodorants. Deodorants simply mask the odor. However, many products combine the two.
  • Taking regular showers or baths: Bathing regularly removes bacteria from the skin, leaving fewer bacteria to interact with sweat. However, daily bathing may dry out the skin, so bathing a few times every week or after episodes of stress and sweating might help reduce body odor while preventing skin dryness.
  • Wearing clean clothes every day: Bacteria from the skin’s surface can pass onto clothes, and old sweat may retain its odor. Changing clothes and underwear daily may help reduce odor.
  • Using sweat pads: A person can fix these thin patches onto the inside of a shirt to absorb sweat. People who know they have an upcoming stressful event, such as a job interview or an exam, might benefit from wearing sweat pads ahead of time.
  • Removing underarm hair: This may help sweat evaporate faster, reducing how much time it has to produce an odor.

The key to preventing stress sweat centers around managing stress as effectively as possible.

Everyone experiences stress sometimes, but it is possible to process and manage stressful events in ways that trigger less of an emotional and physical reaction.

Stress relief methods might include:

  • Deep breathing: Slow, deep breathing may help reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: This exercise involves focusing on different parts of the body, tensing and relaxing them in turn.
  • Mindfulness and meditation: These practices help return a person’s attention to the present, drawing their focus to their breathing.
  • Yoga: This ancient practice revolves around stretches, slow movements, and deep breathing.

Other recommendations for reducing stress include:

People having difficulty coping with stress or finding that symptoms do not resolve when the trigger goes away might find it helpful to speak with a physician or mental health professional.

This also applies if stress regularly makes a person reach out for coping mechanisms that can cause harm, like alcohol, drugs, and tobacco products.

Stress sweat occurs as a natural part of the body’s reaction to stress hormones. Sweat cools down a person when stress increases their body temperature.

The odor of stress sweat may be stronger due to the activation of apocrine glands in the stress response.

People who feel uncomfortable with the odor of stress sweat may manage it by using antiperspirant or sweat pads or regularly washing their clothes and skin.

A person may reduce stress, and stress sweat, by trying relaxation techniques, speaking with loved ones, and adopting certain lifestyle strategies. Talking with a qualified healthcare professional may help if stress becomes too constant or intense.