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The Purpose Of Perspiration

Rafael Nadal of Spain shakes the sweat from his hair after winning a tennis match.
Rafael Nadal of Spain shakes the sweat from his hair after winning a tennis match.

Americans spend billions of dollars every year on deodorants and antiperspirants. But what they’re tasked with covering up has a complex and fascinating biological function.

Humans’ ability to sweat from such a large surface area of our bodies is unique within the animal kingdom. It allows us to cool down and fight off heatstroke, an increasingly valuable tool as temperatures climb on our planet.

Like many people, science journalist Sarah Everts found herself embarrassed by her sweat. That embarrassment spurred her curiosity and led her on a quest to learn all she could about perspiration. That journey led her to dating events where couples match based on attraction to sweat, towel dancing performances in sauna theaters, and a professional armpit sniffer.

Everts also visited Simona Francese, a forensic scientist from Sheffield Hallam University, who studies the chemicals deposited in fingerprints, which are, in fact, sweatprints.

When she examined my fingerprint’s chemistry using a technique called mass spectrometry, Francese easily found evidence of my morning coffee, thanks to the caffeine circulating in my blood. Had I spiked my latte with a shot of whisky or snorted a line of cocaine as a breakfast chaser, Francese could have detected that, too. In fact, in collaboration with law enforcement, she has previously tested her technique on a stalker’s fingermark left behind on a window sill, and found chemical evidence that he had been indulging in alcohol and cocaine – something he had also admitted to law enforcement.

Everts takes us inside the science of perspiration.

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