Sarah Everts is an award-winning science journalist who has written about art and artifacts, fake foods, chemical weapons, the history of chemistry and alchemy, pheromones, sweat, and anything unexpected or absurd.
Her new book is The Joy of Sweat: The Strange Science of Perspiration (Amazon, Bookshop). In The Joy of Sweat, Sarah Everts delves into its role in the body—and in human history. I love reading this kind of deep dive into a subject that’s familiar, yet one that I don’t know much about.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Sarah about happiness, habits, and health.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Sarah: The catharsis of a good sweat, in a scorching sauna, where water infused with an essential oil has been poured on the rocks, resulting in a pulse of delicious, scented steam. During one of these ceremonies, which are popular in spas across Europe, a sauna employee takes a towel and uses it to whirl around the scented steam so that you feel like you’re in an aromatic wind tunnel. It’s heaven. My favorite essential oils for this are either citrusy (grapefruit and clementine) or woody (particularly eucalyptus). The ceremony is called an Aufguss—a German word for “infusion”—and I got hooked on it during the decade I lived in Berlin.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
The only person responsible for my own happiness is me.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
For most of human history, we’ve tried to modulate our body odor with perfume… but the perfumes of history are quite different than many of the scents we use today. I went to a perfume archive in France called the Osmothèque – it’s actually in this cute little suburb of Versailles, not too far from the castle. They have recreated many perfumes from the past, based on ancient recipes that go back thousands of years. One of my favorite scents was penned by Pliny the Elder, and it was designed for royalty. It smelled, to me, like a mix of Catholic incense and apple crisp, a potent reminder that Christianity borrowed ceremonies from older practices, and that our (wealthy) human predecessors might have applied spices to help them work up an appetite. Another ancient perfume I sniffed was a 14th century scent worn by a Hungarian queen. At the time, it was marketed as an elixir of youth because she had lived to the then ripe old age of 75, and had married a much younger man. It smelled like a green herb garden—of rosemary and mint and thyme.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I’m kind of a hedonist at heart. It’s hard for me to change my habits if there’s no pleasure involved as a carrot. Which is why I am so grateful for podcasts. I pair them with healthy habits I’d like to form: During the pandemic, I fell off my exercise routine and could only motivate myself to get back into the swing of things by using podcasts as a soundtrack for walking, then running, then back to my previous HIIT regime. I also recently decided to dial down my consumption of delicious chips and ice cream, particularly late at night, by distracting myself with a walk and podcast instead. There’s very little I love more than salt & vinegar chips, and I’m not particularly good at moderation, but luckily I discovered a fascinating podcast about the sordid history of the Chippendales (Welcome To Your Fantasy). I’m amused that binging on a podcast about the history of one vice helped me to drop a different one.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Turns out, I’m a Rebel.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
Email. EMAIL. Did I mention email? Also the existence of Miss Vickie’s salt & vinegar chips.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
“A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.” This line from the delightful 1992 Australian romcom “Strictly Ballroom,” struck 16-year-old me like a ton of bricks. I haven’t watched the film in decades, but the line often pops into my head at pivotal moments in my life, and helps me drum up courage when and where it’s needed.
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
This is an inordinately hard question for me to answer succinctly! Any attempt would be a manifesto longer than many books themselves. In short: ALL THE BOOKS.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
The sweating detox myth. We sweat to cool off, that’s it. Sweat is sourced from the liquidy parts of blood minus the big stuff, like red blood cells. If we sweat to detoxify our body of nasty chemicals, we’d have to sweat out the entire liquid contents of our blood, leaving us dehydrated and probably dead. Instead, our kidneys filter out the nasty stuff and dispatch it out of the body in pee. All sorts of interesting stuff does come out in sweat, though, since it is sourced from blood: Everything from good stuff like hormones and vitamins to bad stuff like urea or heavy metals. Anything coming out in sweat is incidental, just grabbing a ride from the circulatory system to your skin.