Does human sweat smell different when we're under stress?
January 23, 2019 3:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm finding a lot of anecdotal internet info about this, but is it actually, scientifically true? My experience, inside.

Last night I underwent a very stressful situation -- the memorial service for my beloved best friend. I was: sad, crying quietly, happy to see people in her circle, relieved that a big event with hundreds of people was carried off well, sad, stressed, full of joy at seeing some folks I hadn't seen in a long time, sad, softly crying, etc. In short, I really experienced a full gamut of emotions. It was a coolish evening and I was dressed appropriately for the temperature. I did not feel myself sweating in any discernable way.

When I got home, however, I realized that my underarms/underarm area of my clothes absolutely REEKED of an odor I don't know that I'd ever smelled. It's not my usual daily sweat. It's not my heavy exercising sweat. It wasn't even the smell of my unwashed exercise clothes.

The clothing I was wearing had been freshly dry cleaned before, and definitely didn't have any odor when I put them on. I probably wore the clothes for about 6 hours total. I was wearing my usual deodorant.

I double-checked the clothing this morning and yep, it really stinks, in a totally weird way.

So what was that all about?
posted by BlahLaLa to Health & Fitness (5 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Humans produce pheromones, which tell us, and others about our emotional state. There is a lot of scientific back and forth on this subject, but fear produces a smell, there are sex pheromones and plenty of other communications. In aftermath you might think your clothes smell bad, but it is just a message about how you felt at a time. Lovers will put on a sweatshirt their beloved wore and recognize and be comforted, or exhilarated by the smell. As much as the perfume industry wants to override our evolution, we smell, and we smell and get information. We communicate without speaking in many ways.
posted by Oyéah at 3:24 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

Yes, I believe that happens.

I back this up with an anecdote. At one of my old employers, my manager, a fairly quiet chap, absolutely honked (to the extent that the entire office was unpleasant) whenever he had to do anything stressful, such as interviewing job candidates. I'm noticed similar things with other people over the years. You know the idea that you can smell fear? That's where it comes from - well, any type of stress, really.
posted by pipeski at 3:29 PM on January 23 [5 favorites]

Oh totally, adrenaline sweat reek (and adrenaline bad breath!) are real.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:48 PM on January 23 [5 favorites]

This is completely reasonable and well supported.

It’s well documented that measuring cortisol levels in sweat can indicate stress levels in humans, to the extent that recent research is focusing on wearable devices to to measure cortisol in human sweat.
BTW, cortisol levels are used as a proxy for stress levels for behavioral research in non-human animals as well, including lizards as well as birds and mammals. Cortisol is a basic and important hormone among vertebrae’s that can be measured in blood, saliva, urine etc.

Here’s an article specifically about stresss sweat and cortisol in humans.

On preview: the last article I linked is the same as the one provided above by pseudostrabismus.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:11 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]

[The OP is specifically looking for non-anecdotal info - let's stick to that. Thanks. ]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 11:08 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

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