Physiology of Sweat Gland Function: The Roles of Sweating and Sweat Composition in Human Health

Temperature (Austin). 2019 Jul 17;6(3):211-259. doi: 10.1080/23328940.2019.1632145. eCollection 2019.


The purpose of this comprehensive review is to: 1) review the physiology of sweat gland function and mechanisms determining the amount and composition of sweat excreted onto the skin surface; 2) provide an overview of the well-established thermoregulatory functions and adaptive responses of the sweat gland; and 3) discuss the state of evidence for potential non-thermoregulatory roles of sweat in the maintenance and/or perturbation of human health. The role of sweating to eliminate waste products and toxicants seems to be minor compared with other avenues of excretion via the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract; as eccrine glands do not adapt to increase excretion rates either via concentrating sweat or increasing overall sweating rate. Studies suggesting a larger role of sweat glands in clearing waste products or toxicants from the body may be an artifact of methodological issues rather than evidence for selective transport. Furthermore, unlike the renal system, it seems that sweat glands do not conserve water loss or concentrate sweat fluid through vasopressin-mediated water reabsorption. Individuals with high NaCl concentrations in sweat (e.g. cystic fibrosis) have an increased risk of NaCl imbalances during prolonged periods of heavy sweating; however, sweat-induced deficiencies appear to be of minimal risk for trace minerals and vitamins. Additional research is needed to elucidate the potential role of eccrine sweating in skin hydration and microbial defense. Finally, the utility of sweat composition as a biomarker for human physiology is currently limited; as more research is needed to determine potential relations between sweat and blood solute concentrations.

Keywords: Chloride; potassium; sauna; sodium; sweat biomarkers; thermoregulation.

Publication types

  • Review

Grant support

This work was supported by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, a division of PepsiCo, Inc.