Why Sweating at Work Can Be a Serious Problem
6 Min Read By Merilee Kern, MBA
As people go about their daily work lives, whether in a restaurant or office or networking and interacting with colleagues, customers, clients, vendors, and other associates, there can be a common but hidden scourge: excessive sweating. In fact, a national survey conducted by the International Hyperhidrosis Society —the scholars of sweat— shows multiple millions suffer from extreme, uncomfortable, embarrassing, debilitating and emotionally-devastating sweating. This type of sweating is a serious medical condition known as hyperhidrosis and nearly 367 million people of all ages struggle with it on their hands, feet, face, underarms or body.
Hyperhidrosis can be particularly devastating in work environments where “keeping your cool” is the name of the game and “image is everything.” While many people attempt to hide their sweating problems and suffer in silence, the impacts are often hard to cover up. Dramatic sweating in the presence of peers at work, or in environments like team dinners, expos, conferences, customer meetings, happy hours, and other events, can cause severe embarrassment, stress, anxiety, and other emotional issues. Even when people are alone, hyperhidrosis often takes a heavy toll—adversely impacting one’s productivity in a myriad of ways, both professionally and personally.
People with hyperhidrosis struggle with disproportionate and random sweating that may drench clothing and footwear, damage technology tools, ruin papers, make holding writing instruments impossible, promote hiding and isolation behaviors, degrade self-esteem, and even prompt bullying—at work and elsewhere. The holistic effect on life—business, marital, social and otherwise—is thus profound. In fact, research published in Archives of Dermatological Research indicates that the majority of those with excessive sweating confirm the condition has negative impacts on their social life, well-being, and emotional as well as mental health.
So significant is hyperhidrosis in the workplace that international powerhouse AT&T, which boasts an employee pool nearing a quarter of a million people worldwide, is working with the IHhS to establish hyperhidrosis as one of the relatively common medical conditions the company recognizes as a disability. The AT&T effort is aimed at helping employees suffering with the condition perform optimally, feel valued and also benefit from accommodations fostering greater comfort, creativity, and productivity.
Lisa J Pieretti, Executive Director of the International Hyperhidrosis Society, notes, “The pressures of dealing with a ‘sweating problem’ around workplace and other peers can be catastrophic to self-esteem and more. Too often, people become anxious about going to work, socializing with the boss or other associates, or being out in public in general. But when those with hyperhidrosis receive support, understanding, and appropriate treatment, their lives can be dramatically changed. We’re thrilled to be working with AT&T to help enhance the lives of affected staff members.”
Underscoring the benefits of being proactive, IHhS co-founder Dr. David Pariser notes that, while hyperhidrosis is the number one dermatological disease in terms of negatively affecting a person’s quality-of-life, it’s also number one in having the most positive impact when treated. “When hyperhidrosis is caught early, a person’s life can be transformed for the better in a multitude of ways,” he says.
With that in mind, the first step toward providing solutions for those people who sweat excessively at work is to bust some common myths and misconceptions with facts from the experts at the IHhS, including these:
Myth: Those with hyperhidrosis don’t suffer during workplace-specific activities.
Truth: In a recent 2017 study, 63 percent of those with hyperhidrosis reported interference in the performance of tasks at work or school due to their condition.
Myth: Sweat is to blame for stains on your work clothes and uniforms.
Truth: Not true; ironically it’s actually your antiperspirant combined with your sweat that leads to staining. Apply your antiperspirant at night to help avoid this. As a bonus, your antiperspirant will actually work better, too.
Myth: Sweaty people are nervous, have hygiene issues or are out of shape.
Truth: People with hyperhidrosis (which causes overactive sweat glands) sweat excessively regardless of mood, weather, or activity level—often producing four or five times more sweat than is considered “normal”. If you find yourself sweating a lot during exercise, however, don’t blame it on being out of shape. Research shows that physically fit people actually sweat more and start sweating sooner during exercise that those who are less fit. But if you sweat excessively and uncontrollably (more than what seems “normal” as a reaction to exercise or heat), you may have hyperhidrosis.
Myth: You can sweat out toxins… like that office happy hour hangover.
Truth: Sweat is basically water, sodium chloride, and potassium—regardless of what you ate or drank yesterday. And sweating does not rid your body of “toxins” — you have your kidneys, liver, lungs, and digestive system for that. Besides, sweat glands reside in your skin and aren’t connected to the waste-elimination systems in your body. Want to help your body get rid of “bad” stuff? Eat well, stay hydrated, and exercise to keep your organs functioning properly. Sorry, no shortcuts.
Myth: Men and women sweat equally.
Truth: Men actually tend to sweat more than women. While prepubescent girls and boys do sweat about the same volume, once hormones kick in, sweating starts to vary between the sexes with men tending to begin sweating sooner and in higher volume (with activity or heat) than women. Why? Scientists point to testosterone, which enhances men’s sweat response. Basically, women need to get hotter before they start to sweat. Estrogen plays a role here, too, promoting lower body temperatures in women. Another reason why guys tend to sweat more is because they’re often bigger; the bigger the body, the more heat it generates, the more it needs to cool down. If, however, you sweat uncontrollably and excessively so that you drench your clothes, ruin your iPhone, turn leather shoes into sponges, or have to layer up to hide sweat marks, you might have hyperhidrosis. In fact, as indicated in this infographic from Dermira, a biotech firm dedicated to developing treatments for chronic skin conditions, men and women are equally impacted by hyperhidrosis.
Myth: All sweat is the same and all sweat stinks.
Truth: There are actually two types of sweat glands that each produce their own type of sweat: eccrine and apocrine sweat. Eccrine sweat is an odorless, clear fluid that helps the body to control its temperature by promoting heat loss through evaporation. It’s mostly made up of water and salt. Apocrine sweat, on the other hand, is “stress” sweat and apocrine glands are found mostly in the armpits and genital region (near dense pockets of hair follicles.) Apocrine sweat is a thick fluid that’s initially odorless, but doesn’t evaporate as quickly as eccrine sweat and can develop an odor when it combines with normal bacteria on the surface of the skin. The odor produced is that characteristic potent smell we often call “body odor.” Fortunately for those of us with stressful jobs, there are ways to manage stress sweat (and the resultant odor). Antiperspirants are the first step and fortunately work on both types of sweat. For stress related odor, make sure you’re using a deodorant, too.
Myth: Antiperspirants are for underarms only and, like caffeine, are best used in the morning.
Truth: Think outside the pits! You can glide, stick, spray, and roll-on nearly anywhere that sweating is a problem (picture hands, feet, face, back, chest, and even groin.) Be smart and talk to your dermatologist first before applying an antiperspirant to sensitive areas and test new products on small areas of skin first. Luckily, there are antiperspirant brands that are specifically formulated to help those who suffer from excessive sweating. Be sure to use your antiperspirant in the evening as well as in the morning. Sweat production is at its lowest at night, giving the active ingredients in antiperspirants time overnight to get into your pores and block perspiration by the time the sun comes up and you get moving.
Myth: Antiperspirants can cause breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Truth: According to the American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen Cancer Foundation, National Cancer Institute, BreastCancer.org, and the Alzheimer’s Association, there are no strong scientific studies reporting a statistical association between antiperspirant use and breast cancer risk or Alzheimer’s risk. If you’re concerned about breast cancer or Alzheimer’s, you don’t need to ditch your antiperspirants – focus instead on having regular health screenings, avoiding alcohol, exercising regularly, eating a nutritious and balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, staying mentally and socially involved, and protecting yourself from head injuries.
Myth: Excessive sweating is less debilitating than other skin conditions people have to deal with.
Truth: According to Dr. Pariser, hyperhidrosis has the greatest impact of any dermatological disease. In fact, various investigations show the impact of hyperhidrosis on quality-of-life is equal or greater than that of in-patient psoriasis, severe acne, Darier disease, Hailey-Hailey disease, vitiligo, and chronic pruritus.
The extreme level of sweat production experienced with hyperhidrosis can disrupt all aspects of a woman’s life, from workplace performance, relationships, recreational activities, and self-image to overall emotional well-being. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are helpful resources available to help people with hyperhidrosis to not just “know sweat,” but to also achieve a more comfortable, fruitful and happier life.