Whenever I visit Los Angeles, I take a few hours for the Olympic Spa, a Korean wellness spa & retreat. With various water baths & sauna options, there's likely a heat (or cold) treatment for everyone. I can recall one instance when I was beyond exhausted, having just finished up 10 days of working before driving 5 hours straight to LA. I couldn’t get my body to nap, so I went to Olympic. After my time there, I had my personality back- it’s about the only way I can put it. I slept like a baby that night, and woke up feeling completely refreshed. Since that experience, I've turned to sweat bathing or bath houses whenever my body is begging for a break. I recently went to the Wellness Refinery in Philadelphia after two months of non-stop moving (cross country moves are no joke). I awoke the next morning feeling clear headed and relaxed enough that I could actually take a much needed break. For me, body therapies often edge on spiritual experiences- providing me with a sense of belonging and relaxation.
We’ve all heard that breaking a sweat is good for the mind, body and soul, but why exactly is that? Researchers have been teasing out those answers, and just as with anything health & wellness related, perspiration’s positive impact on skin is multi-faceted and interconnected to various other functions in the body.
Sweat is a form of thermoregulation, often occurring when the body needs to cool itself off. So before we dive into the benefits of sweating, we need to recognize that this is a reactive bodily process. For the purposes of today’s discussion, let’s focus on sweat bathing as the catalyst for sweat.
Sweat bathing is a traditional healing modality found in many cultures across the globe that refers to the act of sitting, laying or standing in a heated space to induce sweating. Saunas, Temazcals, Banias, Sweat Lodges, Mushi-buro are just a few of the names given to structures & practices of sweat bathing in various cultures. I love to think of this practice as bathing from the inside out, so to speak, as our bodies are producing the liquid thats hydrating and cleansing our skin.
Sweat’s composition is mostly water, with various other compounds such as salts, sugars and antimicrobial peptides. Yes. Sweat is naturally antimicrobial. Dermiscidin, a sodium lactate peptide found in sweat, is an antimicrobial peptide that supports skin’s function in our innate immune system. The synergy of sweat compounds naturally balance moisture levels of skin. Releasing sweat on the skin helps hydrate, balance moisture, and fortify the immune system.
But waaaait, I thought sweat causes breakouts? Sometimes it does, and that could be for a few reasons. For example, if a body is in a state of imbalance, sweat could have varying levels of compounds in them that aren't as antimicrobial or hydrating as balanced sweat should be. If skin is in active breakout, there could be acne causing bacteria flourishing within the skin’s microbiome. Sweat that is released by skin and then not washed off could potentially trap this bacteria. Another possible explanation is the mixture of existing acne causing bacteria with friction of your clothing against congested areas. Sweat soaked clothes will attract bacteria as well, and not removing them after sweating can trap the bacteria between skin & clothing.
But there's another reason why sweating could push a breakout through. When our lymphatic systems are stagnant, they aren’t acting as an effective channel of elimination for metabolic build up. When our body temperature rises and we start sweating, there is a chance your body is releasing the localized congestion through skin. Studies researching the potentials of sweat as a toxin-releasing process are limited or often inconclusive- which I dive into in just a moment- but there was a study that found sweat is a successful channel of elimination for heavy metals. At this time, more research is needed to really say what exactly about sweat helps bring congested skin to a head, but I’m inclined to see this as a multi-faceted release.
Comprehensive studies about the exact capacity in which sweat helps eliminate excess from the body are limited. The liver, lymphatic systems, skin, renal system, and digestive system are very effective channels of elimination. The exact link between sweat as a channel for elimination is still being thoroughly researched. But in communities across the globe, sweat therapies have been employed to stimulate and promote healthful living. These practices are ancient wisdom, which tends to require a lot of nuance & synergy, or in scientific terms- variables.**
If you experience sweat induced acne, be sure to sweat with the most breathable clothes on (or with sweat wicking materials), change clothes after sweating, and use a toner or mist on acne prone areas after. Always use clean towels to pat skin dry after, and never reuse towels or clothing that have had sweat on them.
Back to sweat bathing. Sitting in an area for a short period of time to raise temperature and instigate sweating has been a popular supportive healing modality across the globe. It's been said to improve complexion, support vitality, and boost mood. In my own experience, I’ve felt these things. A sense of renewal comes after an infrared sauna treatment, and the following few days my skin looks extra happy.
Sweat bathing is an immune supportive practice. But another key component is stress-relief and relaxation- perhaps two things I'm not the best at implementing on the daily. When you have nothing to do but sit and be, a lot of energy can shed and recharge. Stress negatively impacts skin, and our society seems to be the most collectively stressed it has ever been.
Sweat bathing can be a great practice for supporting your immune system, and yes that means your skin too! Sweat bathing raises core body temperature and immune system response is activated. In traditional knowledge, the practice of sweat bathing is respected as a method for strengthening the immune system, and skin health is often a key component of this conversation.
It’s likely that sweating in and of itself isn’t the sole beneficial element to our skin’s health- but rather a synergistic component of vital flow. With circulation stimulated, nutrient & oxygen-rich blood is flowing more readily throughout the body- super beneficial to areas requiring some extra support. Our temperature is heightened, which means our immune system is alert, channels of elimination are awake, and our lymphatic system is supported.
It’s not so much that the act of sweating will clear our skin or change the way we feel about our skin, but it's more so that sweating is a sign that many of the bodily processes that support skin are active & alert.
Full circle now- our skin is a vital part of our immune system. While skin is often the focus of control and nit picking and beautification, skin’s immune function is sadly disregarded in skincare conversations. It's not as sexy of a topic, perhaps, or maybe skincare brand’s don’t fully grasp the interconnected relationship skin has to the body's overall well-being. Whatever the reason, I’m excited to be having these conversations. Sweating supports channels of elimination, stimulates circulation, turns on the immune system, supports the lymphatic system and releases naturally hydrating & antimicrobial compounds onto skin’s surface. It’s just one way you can support the well-being of your skin in a holistic manner.
**Too many variables are not conducive to scientific research, so I just wanted to note that while I am all about reading the scientific evidence that supports centuries old traditional remedies, I do understand the limitations of studying traditional healing modalities. Understanding the limitations of scientific research does not, by any means, discredit science. I believe there is room for traditional wisdom and scientific evidence to exist in one space. I had to say that because… well, the internet lacks a lot of nuance & that’s just down right unfortunate because wellness is literally all about nuance.