For years, Gatorade-sponsored athletes dripped sweat beads of red, yellow, and blue, challenging us to fill our exhausted bodies with enough of the acid-hued drink for it to bleed gloriously out of our pores: “Is it in you?”
For the vast majority of profuse perspirers, the answer is no: It’s highly unlikely anyone could ingest enough Glacier Freeze or Arctic Blitz to leave ice-blue rings beneath their dampened pits. But the multicolored perspiration paradigm posited by Gatorade is not a biologically impossible one.
“I think everybody wanted to sweat a neon blue liquid,” one Reddit user, frustrated with his inability to perspire in technicolor, complained in 2014. “Those commercials fucking lied.”
Well, dear Redditor, they didn’t — at least, not entirely. A handful of humans in medical history have been documented as sufferers of chromhidrosis, a very unusual condition in which sweat pours out in vibrant hues. “This is a rare condition of colored sweat,” Dr. Benjamin Barankin, a Toronto dermatologist and Medical Director of Toronto Dermatology Centre, told Inverse, explaining that sweat can show up as green, black blue, red, yellow, or pink. Contrary to what Gatorade’s ads might lead us to believe, the sudden onset of colored sweat is not a sign of raw athleticism but, unfortunately, of genetic abnormality.
Because the condition is so rare, the physicians who treat it are often as confused as their patients. In one case described in the American Journal of Dermatopathology, a 26-year-old showed up with black secretions running from his cheeks; in another, described in Annals of Dermatology, a man had green beads of sweat on his palms and feet. One unfortunate 70-year-old, described in Dermatology Online Journal, appeared to have red sweat running from his limbs and crotch. Sexy Gatorade ads these are not.
Scientists have traced colored sweat back to mysterious issues with the body’s sweat glands, which come in two flavors: eccrine and apocrine. Glands of the eccrine camp exist for the sole purpose of keeping us cool, pumping out a thin, watery, odorless kind of sweat that’s essentially saltwater. These glands are found all over the body, particularly on our palms, the soles of our feet, and on our heads. In extremely rare cases, colored sweat pours out of them after eating certain dyes or drugs, as in “The Case of the Red Lingerie,” a 1999 study describing a patient who sweat pink stains onto her clothes and underwear after ingesting a pink water-soluble food dye. But these cases are few and far between — and much weirder than they are cool. And no, Barankin says, no amount of Gatorade would turn your sweat the same color.
Most of the time, when people sweat beads of multicolored sweat, it means something’s gone wrong with the apocrine glands. It’s these glands that make the gross, smelly kind of perspiration — the thick, milky stuff that pours out of armpits and nipples, crotches and external genitalia — that’s also responsible for body odor. “Typically, the face and armpits [are] affected, but anywhere there are apocrine glands can be affected,” Barankin says. In people with chromhidrosis, the sweat dripping out of these glands contains high amounts of a chemical known as lipofuscin, a yellowish-brown pigment normally found inside certain non-dividing cells (it’s one of the causes of age spots). For reasons that remain unclear to scientists, lipofuscin builds up in the apocrine glands of chromhidrosis sufferers and undergoes a process called oxidation, which causes it to change color from freckle-brown to deep blue and green. It then gets squeezed out with the sweat.
What’s a color-moist individual to do? Unfortunately, says Barankin, there’s not much medical professionals can do but try to slow the process of sweating down using injections of Botox — yes, the compound responsible for Lil Kim’s intractable face — to essentially freeze the gland’s ability to produce sweat until lipofuscin clears itself from the body. Applying synthetic capsaicin — the spicy compound in red peppers — on top of the sweaty areas occasionally works. But these are both short-term fixes.
The problem, in the end, is with the sweat gland itself. Even milking it — that is, manually palpating the thing so it squeezes out its bank of pigment, like a pimple — won’t get rid of the problem altogether. When the gland is defective, lipofuscin will simply build up again in two to three days, Barankin says. The only real fix is to surgically remove the gland altogether.
Gatorade has since retired multicolored perspiration from its ad campaigns but has stuck with its sweat-centric mantra, which exists now in permutations like the “Sweat With The Best” contest and the hilarious Peyton Manning endorsed “Sweat It To Get It” campaign. They’re good, but they don’t beat the classics. Despite the exploitation of the medical abnormality that inspired them, the classic ads, featuring the likes of Michael Jordan and Sidney Crosby, are deeply missed.