low-key eye

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Quick notes:

  • Researchers find that sweat might hold the keys to reading the body’s subtle physiology.
  • Sweat sensors can accurately enable scientists to measure electrolytes and calcium buildup.
  • Recent advances show that these sensors might be able to help monitor things like glucose.

Not many papers in the academic world start off by saying, “Sweat is an attractive biofluid … ” However, a recently published paper in Science Advances starts just this way. But the aim of the paper, despite these initial peculiarities, isn’t to puzzle us with an attraction to one of the body’s more salty fluids. Rather, it’s to better understand our health.

Decoding the data within our sweat has become a new aim for wearable sensor technology. These sensors, which have been used in everything from heart-rate monitoring to CBD infusion, have shown that our salty liquid friend might be able to help us uncover the secrets to better health. If you’re tired of wasting that beady fluid, then, these sensors might be for you.

Why sweat?

Sweat has become a primary aim of researchers and engineers because of its accessibility on the body. While other bodily fluids like blood and urine can (and are) used by physicians and the like to gather data on our body’s internal workings, neither of these fluids can be accessed noninvasively. In other words, decoding sweat might mean that we no longer have to get needle-poked or catheterized by doctors.

The noninvasive quality of these sensors is undoubtedly an attractive quality of reading sweat instead of other fluids — but it’s not the only benefit.

The other attractive benefit of sweat sensors is that they could enable prospective patients to monitor and regulate their own health, rather than run to the doctor for expensive and possibly unnecessary tests. If the sensors worked, they could provide a cheap and preventive measure for those who might otherwise need a trip to their local physician. Your wallet would thank you.

Decoding our sweat

Shot of an unrecognizable woman checking her fitness tracker after a runShot of an unrecognizable woman checking her fitness tracker after a run
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Sweat, rather than just dribble off the body when things get warm, can reveal a plethora of data about the body’s current physiological state. While the easiest data for these sensors to gather is in regards to the high volume of sodium and chloride secreted in the sweat, other potentially measurable derivatives include things like calcium ions, metabolites, and proteins.

If the sensors could reliably measure these different concentrates in the sweat, they could do everything from provide real-time feedback about electrolyte concentration and calcium levels to glucose monitoring for patients self-regulating their insulin.

While there are numerous difficulties faced by the engineers of these wearable sensors — like the influence of cosmetics, which can easily confound the data — tremendous strides have been made to push the technology closer to market entry. And once it enters, we can say goodbye to much of the more invasive tech we currently use.

Don’t sweat it

The most recent advances on the wearable sensor front came from a team out of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. They constructed a wearable sensor that would capture secreted sweat, measure its derivatives, then offer a readout of their composition.

There are, however, still limitations on what these researchers can do with the patches they’ve made.

Accurate baselines — those things that actually enable you to say that something is wrong — need to be drawn such that these scientists can yield accurate conclusions from the data they’ve gathered. With glucose monitoring, for instance, they found there was slim correlation between the glucose found in sweat and that found in the body. This is a problem if your aim is to use the glucose found in sweat to infer something about the glucose found in the blood — i.e., if you have to regulate your own insulin.

Despite the current limitations and research that still needs to be done, knowing that these sensors might provide a cheap alternative to the doctor and a potential reprieve from the assault of needles is a lofty solace. So if the thought of a syringe induces anything like the malaise it does in me, you might enjoy this future of wearable sweat sensors.

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:

How can you sweat when all you’re doing is lying down?! Learn more about night sweats.

If you aren’t sweating now, you will be after you read this article …

Turns out drinking alcohol after breaking a sweat isn’t the best idea. Who knew?