Claim: Sweating can release a useful amount of toxins/toxicants from the body


Senior Member.
This is an age old claim that most of us will have heard, many of us will assume to be true on some level, and some will have looked into.

Whatever the outcome here I don't think there's any dispute that sweating - saunas, steam rooms, strenuous activity, etc - can feel really, really good, and I'm sure have some sort of health benefits. But as for the specific claim of whether it can remove toxicants - especially heavy metals - I think a deeper look is required.

First off, a cursory google seems to indicate that "it small amount of toxins are released through sweating, but it's insignificant in the grand scheme of things and compared to what the liver and kidneys can do." For example:

The body does appear to sweat out toxic materials — heavy metals and bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in plastics, for instance, have been detected in sweat. But there’s no evidence that sweating out such toxins improves health.

The concentration of metals detected in sweat are extremely low. Sweat is 99 percent water. The liver and kidneys remove far more toxins than sweat glands.

So does it matter that people excrete small amounts of toxins in their sweat? “The fact is, nobody really knows,” Dr. [Joe] Schwarcz [a professor of chemistry at McGill University in Montreal] said.
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Humans sweat to cool ourselves, not to excrete waste products or clear toxic substances. That’s what our kidneys and liver are for. Of course, there’s usually some grain of truth at the heart of a myth, and toxic sweat is no exception.

“You always have to ask how much,” says chemist Joe Schwarcz. “When you look at sweat, you can find many substances, [but] the presence of a chemical cannot be equated to the presence of risk.”

At most [...] a typical person doing 45 minutes of high-intensity exercise a day could sweat a total of two liters a day—normal background perspiration included—and all that sweat would contain less than one-tenth of a nanogram of [the] pollutants that are stored in body fat [(including pesticides, flame retardants, and now-banned polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which are still found in the environment].

To put that in perspective, “the amount in sweat is 0.02 percent of what you ingest every day on a typical diet,” [Pascal] Imbeault [an exercise physiologist at the University of Ottawa in Canada] says. If you really pushed it on your exercise regime, you might release up to 0.04 percent of your average daily intake of pollutants.

What that means is that there’s no way you could sweat enough to get rid of even one percent of what you’ll eat in your food that day.

Back to that grain of truth: small amounts of heavy metals and BPA from plastics do make their way into sweat, because these pollutants dissolve more readily in water. But there are more effective ways to remove high levels of metals from the blood, such as chelation therapy. And you pass more BPA out of your body in urine than in sweat. The best way to reduce your BPA exposure is to avoid eating and drinking out of containers made with it.
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This article in the Atlantic is a long look at infrared saunas, which are claimed to be "more effective in moving toxins through the skin than steam saunas because in the far-infrared thermal system only 80 to 85 percent of the sweat is water with the non-water portion being principly [sic] cholesterol, fat-soluable [sic] toxins, toxic heavy metals, sulfuric acid, sodium, ammonia and uric acid."

The writer searches for a citation or source for this claim and eventually traces it back to vague links to a textbook called Vander’s Human Physiology: The Mechanisms of Body Function, written by Eric P. Widmaier; Hershel Raff, Ph.D.; and Kevin T. Strang. She then searches the book and contacts the authors, but can find nothing to even remotely support the claim.

So that's three mainstream articles - including nods to university research (as well as the sometimes unimpressive but ubiquitous Harriet Hall) - that poopoo the idea (as do many others, all basically saying the same thing).

What about the other side of the story? Here's a website that claims:

Heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic are abundant in our environment and endocrine disruptors such as phthalates and bisphenol A can be found in our blood and urine. What does the science say about removing these risks to our health through our sweat pores?

1. Sweating can help eliminate phthalates.

Researchers in Canada examined blood, urine and sweat concentrations of various phthalates in 20 people. They found that the concentration of these chemicals was twice as high in sweat as in urine.

2. Sweating can help eliminate BPA.

The same group of Canadian researchers found BPA in the sweat of 80% of subjects tested. Some of these people had no detectable levels in their blood or urine, which suggests that sweat was the best way to excrete stored bisphenol A.

3. Sweating can help eliminate heavy metals.

Studies show sweat can concentrate arsenic up to 10 times more than blood, cadmium up to 25 times more than blood, lead up to 300 times more than blood, and mercury somewhat more than blood, leading to effective elimination.
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So not purely an opinion piece but claims based on apparent studies. These studies, in order, state:

Blood, urine, and sweat were collected from 20 individuals and analyzed for parent phthalate compounds as well as phthalate metabolites. All patients had MEHP (mono(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate) in their blood, sweat, and urine samples. In several individuals, DEHP (di (2-ethylhexl) phthalate) was found in sweat but not in serum, suggesting the possibility of phthalate retention and bioaccumulation. On average, MEHP concentration in sweat was more than twice as high as urine levels.

Conclusions: Induced perspiration may be useful to facilitate elimination of some potentially toxic phthalate compounds including DEHP and MEHP. Sweat analysis may be helpful in establishing the existence of accrued DEHP in the human body.

[Study from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Alberta]
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Blood, urine, and sweat were collected from 20 individuals and analyzed for various environmental toxicants including BPA. BPA was found to differing degrees in each of blood, urine, and sweat. In 16 of 20 participants, BPA was identified in sweat, even in some individuals with no BPA detected in their serum or urine samples.

Conclusions: Biomonitoring of BPA through blood and/or urine testing may underestimate the total body burden of this potential toxicant. Sweat analysis should be considered as an additional method for monitoring bioaccumulation of BPA in humans. Induced sweating appears to be a potential method for elimination of BPA.

[Same writers as above, presumably same 20 subjects]
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Sweat is an acknowledged excretory route for toxic metals. For instance, it is recommended to sample hair close to the scalp because content of toxic elements may be elevated along the shaft, from either environmental contamination or excreted toxins in sweat and sebum [32, 42].

Arsenic accumulates highly in the skin, and causes characteristic skin lesions, but little information is available on levels in sweat. On average, arsenic was 1.5-fold (in males) to 3-fold (in females) higher in sweat than in blood plasma; however, arsenic was excreted at [much] lower concentrations in sweat than in urine [- on average, less than one tenth].

Cadmium in sweat was examined in six studies [3, 22, 28, 3033]. Stauber and Florence concluded that sweat may be an important route for excretion of cadmium when an individual is exposed to high levels [22, 28], a finding that was confirmed by observing that the total daily excretion of cadmium was greater in sweat than in urine [3, 32].

Lead was examined in eleven studies [3, 22, 2628, 3338]. In two males, 36% and 50% of sweat lead was of molecular weight >30,000, as measured by ultrafiltration, suggesting excretion of organic complexes rather than simple ions [22]. Haber et al. found that prolonged endurance workouts (rowing) ameliorated elevated blood lead levels in exposed workers but did not alter levels in control subjects and did not affect urine levels [26]. They suggested that the elimination route was not urine, but potentially sweat or/and bile. The English abstract of a 1991 case report in Russian indicated that sauna increased excretion of toxic elements and resulted in clinical improvements [27].

Mercury. In 1973, Lovejoy et al. noted that exposure to mercury does not always correlate with urine mercury levels and that elimination by other routes such as sweat may be an explanation [41]. They suggested, “sweating should be the initial and preferred treatment of patients with elevated mercury urine levels.” Robinson measured mercury in sweat repeatedly in two volunteers, observing sweat to urine concentration ratios ranging from less than 0.1 to greater than 5. Sweat mercury concentrations varied widely from day to day, and there was no correlation with urine levels. Sweat mercury levels of 1.5 μg/L were observed by Genuis et al. [3] and 1.4 μg/L by Robinson and Skelly [39].

[This is a meta-analysis of around 50 studies, including the Canadian ones cited above. Lead writer was Dr Margaret "Meg" E. Sears, Adjunct Investigator at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute]
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I suppose all that leads me to some questions:

1. What is the quality of the meta-analysis conducted by Sears, et al?
2. Are the cited studies represented accurately?
3. If, as it appears when taking Sears' paper at face value, sweating does significantly aid the elimination of heavy metals, why has it been reported that this isn't the case?
4. Are the levels reported significant? Dangerous? Abnormal?
5. Is the mainstream missing something here?

All questions I suppose I'll get into when I next have the time. But, until then, over to you...

(And placeholding this link here as a reminder of another paper to look at when I get a mo.)
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Senior Member.
Wikipedia cites a dermatology textbook for information on how eccrine seeat glands work.

Two more names of experts via an LA Times article:
Sweat does contain trace amounts of toxins, says Dr. Dee Anna Glaser, a professor of dermatology at St. Louis University and founding member of the International Hyperhidrosis Society, a medical group dedicated to the study and treatment of heavy sweating.

But, Glaser, adds, in the big picture, sweat has only one function: Cooling you down when you overheat. “Sweating for the sake of sweating has no benefits,” she says. “Sweating heavily is not going to release a lot of toxins.”

In fact, Glaser says, heavy sweating can impair your body’s natural detoxification system. As she explains, the liver and kidneys -- not the sweat glands -- are the organs we count on to filter toxins from our blood. If you don’t drink enough water to compensate for a good sweat, dehydration could stress the kidneys and keep them from doing their job. “If you’re not careful, heavy sweating can be a bad thing,” she says.

Sweating definitely won’t help clear the body of mercury or other metals, says Donald Smith, a professor of environmental toxicology at UC Santa Cruz, who studies treatments for metal poisoning. Almost all toxic metals in the body are excreted through urine or feces, he says. And less than 1% are lost through sweat. In other words, you’ll do far more detoxifying in the bathroom than you ever could in a sauna.

Prescription-strength chelation drugs such as EDTA are the only products proven to remove significant amounts of metals from the body, Smith adds.

My thoughts:
• The reasoning sounds like sympathetic thinking, both the thought that sweating detoxes like urine, and that more is better, but it's not grounded in a theory of how the body actually detoxes (magical thinking)
• "more is better" is not true for urine after a certain point, why should it be better for sweat?
• if it's true, people who suffer from hyperhydrosis should be healthier than others, are they?
• is there a study that evaluates people's health, then gives them access to a sauna for some months, and then evaluates their health again?


Senior Member.
My thoughts:
• The reasoning sounds like sympathetic thinking, both the thought that sweating detoxes like urine, and that more is better, but it's not grounded in a theory of how the body actually detoxes (magical thinking)
• "more is better" is not true for urine after a certain point, why should it be better for sweat?
• if it's true, people who suffer from hyperhydrosis should be healthier than others, are they?
• is there a study that evaluates people's health, then gives them access to a sauna for some months, and then evaluates their health again?

The "magical thinking reasoning" I'm sure is true for some, but that doesn't seem to be the case for Sears and Genius. Plus, they're not saying "more is better".

The fourth question is a good one though. I presume there are examples of this - or things similar to this - in the papers cited by Sears.

is exercise sweat the same as sauna sweat?

I think so.

how do they know the toxins they're measuring come from sweat, vs from the exterior skin?

One would hope, as scientists, that they would have controlled for that. But good control is definitely something that should be looked for upon deeper analysis.


Senior Member.
then there would be no health gain from induced sweating?
some "more is better" has to apply here, or you can't sell health with this

Ah, you mean "more than nothing/little/a normal amount".

Well, sure.

I thought you meant "one hour sauna better than no sauna therefore two or three hour sauna even better".


Senior Member.
it's possible sweating, if exercise induced, might get rid of more toxins faster than normal or no-sweat exercise.. not through sweat but just because our blood is pumping and bodies are working better?

i realize that isn't really what you are asking. but does it really matter if the toxins are IN the sweat or just gone through some other means?


Senior Member.
it's possible sweating, if exercise induced, might get rid of more toxins faster than normal or no-sweat exercise.. not through sweat but just because our blood is pumping and bodies are working better?

Right. That's a thing:

Vigorous activity does help the body rid itself of toxins by increasing the circulation of lymph fluid and blood, which are filtered by the lymph nodes and kidneys respectively. (Any toxins filtered out by the lymph nodes are redeposited in the bloodstream and eliminated by the kidneys.)
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But this idea/theory is something different (eg, sweating through saunas, etc).


Senior Member.
plus you might end up with more toxins if you sauna with someone else. like if lil me saunas with a big fat guy he will sweat at least 5x more than me just from more surface area.. and then his sweat drops on the floor and i walk through it and then his toxins get absorbed through my feet :) which may be more toxins then i personally sweated out in the first place.


Senior Member.
I've always worked on the principle that in the sauna I was just pushing through stuff I was going to sweat out anyway, there's no additional extraction or purging process taking place. The *feeling* of cleanness is unmatched, and I definitely smell differently, I'm definitely shedding something, but nothing that wasn't ready for shedding through the sweat glands anyway.

An example from personal experience - after an IPA/DIPA-heavy beer tasting session, a lot of the aromatics in the hops will emerge from my pores in the following 24 hours, it's quite off-putting to be honest - even my hands and forearms can smell hoppy the next day. I can start the next day with a nice long sauna, and for half an hour afterwards everything will be fine, but the humaloids will continue working their way through and it will be as if I'd never had the sauna in the first place before long.

I'm also not sure by what mechanism they think a human responds differently to the heat from an infrared sauna and from a proper one. The reasoning quoted from the Atlantic article seems bunk - I even disagree with the "through the skin" concept, which I interpret as implying some kind of cell-membrane-crossing process - you don't sweat through the skin, you sweat through pores.
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