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13 Surprising Facts About the Armpit

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The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it's the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don't know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

Tucked away in that damp crevice between your arm and torso, the armpit—a.k.a. the axilla—is often the source of unpleasant odors and embarrassing wetness, and a hairy font of annoyance. But it's also an important juncture that protects important lymph nodes and soft tissue. Mental Floss spoke to microbiologist Alex Berezow, a senior fellow of biomedical science with the American Council on Science and Health, about this often overlooked spot. Here are 13 things we learned.

1. YOUR ARMPITS ARE CHOCK FULL OF LYMPH NODES.

In the small hollow of each armpit are a surprisingly large number of lymph nodes, approximately 20, in two clumps, though you can't usually feel them unless they're swollen. (One clump is closer to the surface than the other.) These lymph nodes are actually an important part of your body's immune system and serve to filter toxins out of tissues. They also produce a variety of immune cells known as lymphocytes that fight infection. In some kinds of breast cancer, these affected lymph nodes may have to be surgically removed.

2. THEY PRODUCE A DIFFERENT KIND OF SWEAT FROM OTHER BODY PARTS.

Not all sweat is created equal. In fact, your skin has two types of sweat glands that help to cool you down: eccrine glands and apocrine glands. Eccrine glands cover most of the surface of your body, and are responsible for that thin sheen of sweat on your brow and extremities during heat and exercise. However, your armpits are abundant in apocrine glands (also found in your groin). These glands are copious in places with more hair follicles, and the sweat they secrete tends to be thicker.

3. YOUR PITS ARE TEEMING WITH BACTERIA.

Your skin is home to many different kinds of bacteria, some of which are quite beneficial, collectively known as a microbiome. This microbiome can vary depending on the body part—so the bacteria on your hand can be vastly different from the moist, warm, dank environment of your armpits.

"Because of oil and sweat secretion, the armpit provides a nice home for many different kinds of bacteria," Berezow tells Mental Floss. Compared to other parts of our skin, armpits are rather densely populated, he explains. Not only that, but armpit microbiomes vary from person to person. "One study showed, after sampling nine people, that there were three types of armpit bacterial communities: One was dominated by Betaproteobacteria, a second by Corynebacterium, and a third by Staphylococcus. So one person's armpit bacteria won't necessarily be the same as somebody else's."

4. IT'S NOT YOUR SWEAT THAT STINKS.

"The secretions our armpits make don't stink. Bacteria break down the compounds, and those breakdown products stink," says Berezow. The bacteria that live in the moist crevices of your armpits interact with your sweat, which contains volatile fatty acids and odorous steroids (among other compounds). That creates a product known as thioalcohols, whose oniony, meaty scents you're likely familiar with if you've ever been stuck in a crowded elevator, subway, or gym at peak workout time.

5. SCIENTISTS ARE WORKING ON A DEODORANT THAT WOULD KILL ONLY SOME BACTERIA…

The researchers plan to engineer a deodorant that would kill only the stink-producing bacteria, instead of the entire armpit microbiome. That's because some good bacteria also live under there, like those that help protect you against fungal infections.

6. …BECAUSE REGULAR DEODORANTS CHANGE YOUR ARMPIT MICROBIOME.

…and not necessarily for the better. "Deodorants change the composition of the microbiome," Berezow says. He cites a study that found "antiperspirant reduces the number of bacteria in our armpits, but interestingly seems to encourage a greater diversity of microbes." He adds, "deodorant seems to increase the number of bacteria compared to people who don't wear deodorant."

Scientists have also found that the pits of people who usually use antiperspirants or deodorants, but stopped for a couple of days as part of the study, grew crowded with an overabundance of Staphylococcaceae—the bacteria that causes staph infections. The individuals who habitually did not use products were dominated by the friendlier—and yet stinkier—Corynebacterium. We just can't win. 

7. WHY DON'T YOUNG KIDS' PITS STINK?

While teenagers often exist in a funk so tangible you can almost see it, most children do not begin to have stinky pits until their tweens. A process called adrenarche begins around age eight for some kids (but often even later) in which the adrenal glands start to secrete hormones called androgens. While these are typically thought of as male hormones, both boys and girls produce them in different quantities. At this stage, not only can sweat start to take on its pungent stench, but children can begin to grow armpit and groin hair. Not much is understood about adrenarche, except that it may be a necessary step in order to trigger puberty. Which may explain why middle school locker rooms do tend to get whiffy.

8. WOMEN'S PITS SMELL LIKE ONIONS AND MEN'S LIKE CHEESE.

Researchers from Firmenich, a company in Geneva, set out to understand the subtle nuances in body odor to better market deodorant products to consumers. In their 2009 study, published in Chemical Senses, they discovered that your unique bouquet may be different depending on whether you're a cisgender man or woman. Women's sweat contained higher levels of an odorless sulphur-containing compound that produces a pungent oniony thioalcohol when combined with the bacteria in the underarm. Men's sweat held higher levels of a fatty acid that produced a "cheesy" scent when the bacteria of the armpit came in contact with it.

9. WOMEN DIDN'T ALWAYS SHAVE THEIR ARMPITS.

Since women were socialized to keep most of their bodies covered for centuries, exposing an armpit was an unlikely event in a public place before 1915. However, an ad in Harper's Bazaar changed everything when it suggested that in order to engage in "Modern Dancing," women should first remove their "objectionable" underarm hair. By the Roaring Twenties, many women's pits were as hairless as the day they were born.

10. SOCIAL EXPECTATIONS SHAPE OUR COMFORT WITH ARMPIT HAIR.

Despite armpit hair being as natural as the hair on our heads—and everywhere else it grows—women's armpit hair tends to be controversial. A feminist scholar set out to explore some of the reasons for this in a 2013 study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly and found that social expectations play a huge role in women seeing body hair—on themselves and on other women—as "disgusting" or simply socially unacceptable. Even women who purposely grew their pit-hair out to flout societal expectations felt self-conscious showing armpit hair in social settings.

11. …AND SO MIGHT OUR ANIMAL NATURE.

The 2013 study, conducted by a professor at Arizona State University, suggests that this revulsion with armpit hair may be a Western aversion to our primal roots as animals. Other animals send out chemical signals called pheromones to attract mates. We still don't know whether pheromones exist in humans, but plenty of evidence indicates we are highly sensitive to each other's biochemicals. If pheromones do exist, body hair around the groin and armpits could be a likely place to find them. But as "civilized" people, we believe the process of finding a partner lies in our hearts and minds—not in our armpits. Maybe one day we'll find out it's all of the above. 

12. YOUR ARMPIT LYMPH NODES MAY WARN YOU OF BREAST CANCER.

Most of the time a swollen lymph node in the armpit is little more than a sign of a cold or flu virus attacking your body. However, it can also be an early symptom of inflammatory breast cancer, an aggressive form of cancer that is best treated when caught as early as possible. Other areas that may swell in this cancer are your breast itself, and around your collarbone. If you have these kinds of sudden swellings, it's a good idea to see a doctor.

13. SOME PEOPLE GET THEIR ARMPITS BOTOXED.

A condition known as hyperhidrosis—excessive sweating—can be frustrating for those who'd like to be able to simply wear clothing they don't drench. According to Dr. Sonam Yadav, medical director of a cosmetic dermatology clinic in New Delhi, India, Botox is used to treat underarm sweating (yes, here in the U.S. too). Yadav tells Mental Floss, "It works by regulating the synergy between the neuromuscular junction and the sweat glands."

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11 Facts About Fingernails
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Whether there's dirt beneath them or polish atop them, your fingernails serve more than just decorative purposes: They help keep your fingertips safe and have a multitude of special functions that even your doctor might not be aware of. “The nails occupy a unique space within dermatology and medicine in general, particularly because they are such a niche area about which few people have expertise,” Evan Rieder, assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Langone Health, tells Mental Floss.

1. FINGERNAILS HAVE FOUR MAIN PARTS.

Along with skin and hair, nails are part of the body's integumentary system, whose main function is to protect your body from damage and infection. Fingernails have four basic structures: the matrix, the nail plate, the nail bed, and the skin around the nail (including the cuticle).

Fingernail cells grow continuously from a little pocket at the root of the nail bed called the matrix. The pale, crescent-shaped lunula—derived from Latin for "little moon"—on the nail itself is the visible portion of the matrix. If the lunula is injured, the  nail won't grow normally (a scarred lunula can result in a split nail), and changes in the lunula's appearance can also be signs of a systemic disease.

Fingernail cells are made of a protein called keratin (same as your hair). As the keratin cells push out of the matrix, they become hard, flat and compact, eventually forming the hard surface of the nail known as the nail plate. Beneath that is the nail bed, which almost never sees the light of day except when there's an injury or disease.

Surrounding the matrix is the cuticle, the semi-circle of skin that has a tendency to peel away from the nail. The skin just underneath the distal end of the fingernail is called the hyponychium, and if you've ever trimmed your nails too short, you know this skin can be slightly more sensitive than the rest of the fingertip.

2. THEY GROW AT A RATE OF 0.1 MILLIMETERS A DAY ...

That's about 3 to 4 millimeters per month. But they don't always grow at the same speed: Fingernails grow more quickly during the day and in summer (this may be related to exposure to sunlight, which produces more nail-nourishing vitamin D). Nails on your bigger fingers also grow faster, and men's grow faster than women's. The pinky fingernail grows the slowest of all the fingernails. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, if you lose a fingernail due to injury, it can take up to six months to grow back (while a toenail could take as much as a year and a half).

3. ... BUT NOT AFTER YOU'RE DEAD.

You've probably heard that your fingernails keep growing after death. The truth is, they don't, according to the medical journal BMJ. What's actually happening is that the skin around the base of the fingernails retracts because the body is no longer pumping fluids into the tissues, and that creates a kind of optical illusion that makes the nails appear longer.

4. ITS ESTIMATED THAT 20 TO 30 PERCENT OF PEOPLE BITE THEIR NAILS.

Scientists say it's still unclear why, but they suspect nail-biters do it because they're bored, frustrated, concentrating, or because it just feels comforting (and anxiety doesn't seem to play a big role). Perfectionists who don't like to be idle are very likely to have the habit. Biters expose themselves to the dangerous crud that collects underneath the nail: The hyponychium attracts bacteria, including E. coli, and ingesting that through nail-biting can lead to gastrointestinal problems down the line. Biting can also damage teeth and jaws.

5. HUMAN FINGERNAILS ARE BASICALLY FLAT CLAWS.

Our primate ancestors had claws—which, like nails, are made of keratin. As human ancestors began using tools some 2.5 million years ago (or even earlier), evolutionary researchers believe that curved claws became a nuisance. To clutch and strike stone tools, our fingertips may have broadened, causing the claws to evolve into fingernails.

6. THE NAIL ACTUALLY MAKES YOUR FINGERTIP MORE SENSITIVE.

While the fingernail may be tough enough to protect tender flesh, it also has the paradoxical effect of increasing the sensitivity of the finger. It acts as a counterforce when the fingertip touches an object. "The finger is a particularly sensitive area because of very high density of nerve fibers," Rieder says.

7. FINGERNAILS CAN REVEAL LUNG, HEART, AND LIVER DISEASES.

"One of the most interesting facts about fingernails is that they are often a marker for disease within the body," Rieder says. Nail clubbing—an overcurvature of the nail plate and thickening of the skin around the nails—is a particularly significant sign of underlying illness, such as lung or heart disease, liver disease, or inflammatory bowel disease. Two-toned nails—whitish from the cuticle to the nail's midpoint and pink, brown, or reddish in the distal half—can be a sign of kidney and liver disease. Nails that are two-thirds whitish to one-third normal can also be a sign of liver disease. However, little white marks on your nails, known as milk spots (or punctate leukonychia) are just the remnants of any kind of trauma to the nail, from slamming it in a door to chewing on it too fervently.

8. YOU CAN GET A COMMON SKIN DISEASE ON YOUR NAILS.

Psoriasis is "typically thought of as a skin disease, but is actually a skin, joint, and nail disease, and when severe, a marker of cardiovascular risk," Rieder says. Psoriatic fingernails may have orange patches called oil spots, red lines known as splinter hemorrhages, lifting of the edges of the nails, and pits, "which look like a thumb tack was repeatedly and haphazardly pushed into the nails," he says.

Doctors often prescribe topical or injected corticosteroids to treat psoriatic nails, but using lasers is an emerging and potentially more cost-effective technique. Rieder relies on a pulsed dye laser, which uses an organic dye mixed with a solvent as the medium to treat nail psoriasis, "which can be both medically and aesthetically bothersome," he says. This laser is able to penetrate through the hard nail plate with minimal discomfort and "to treat targets of interest, in the case of psoriasis, blood vessels, and hyperactive skin," Rieder says.

9. ANCIENT CULTURES DISPLAYED SOCIAL STATUS WITH NAIL ART.

Painting and other forms of decorating nails have a history of offering social and aesthetic cues through variations in nail color, shape, and length, Rieder says. In fact, he adds, in some cultures ornate and well-decorated fingernails "serve as a proxy for social status."

Five thousand years ago in China, men and women of the Ming Dynasty aristocracy grew their nails long and covered them with golden nail guards or bright home-made polishes. The long nails allegedly announced to the world their social rank and their freedom from performing menial labor.

10. A FORMER BEAUTICIAN HELD THE WORLD RECORD FOR THE LONGEST NAILS.

Lee Redmond of Utah started growing her nails in 1979 and kept at it until she held the world record for "longest fingernails on a pair of hands ever (female)" in 2008. Her right thumbnail was 2 feet, 11 inches and the collective length of all her nails was 28 feet, 4 inches. She also applied nail hardener daily and painted them a reflective gold. Unfortunately, she broke her nails in a 2009 car accident and has no plans to regrow them.

11. THE FIRST NAIL CLIPPERS WERE PATENTED IN 1875.

Today, biters don't have to use their teeth to trim their nails. While the earliest tools for cutting nails were most likely sharp rocks, sand, and knives, the purpose-built nail clipper—though it might be more accurately called a circular nail file—was designed by a Boston, Massachusetts inventor named Valentine Fogerty and patented in 1875. The nail clippers we know today were the design of inventors Eugene Heim and Oelestin Matz, who were granted their patent for a clamp-style fingernail clipper in 1881.

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What's Really Happening When We See 'Stars' After Rubbing Our Eyes?
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.

It's likely happened to you before: You start rubbing your eyes and almost immediately begin seeing colors, specks, and swirls from behind your closed lids. So what's happening when you see these 2001-esque "stars"? Do they only occur upon rubbing? Does everyone experience them?

Before we can get to what causes the lights, we need to understand a bit about how the eyes work. Angie Wen, a cornea surgeon at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, tells Mental Floss that the retina—the innermost layer of the eye—consists of millions of cells, or photoreceptors. These cells, she says, "are responsible for receiving information from the outside world and converting them to electrical impulses that are transmitted to the brain by the optic nerve. Then, the brain interprets them as images representing the world around us."

However, what we see doesn't just stop there. Sometimes "we see light that actually comes from inside our eyes or from electric stimulation of the brain rather than from the outside world," Wen says. "These bursts of seemingly random intense and colorful lights are called phosphenes, and appear due to electrical discharges from the cells inside our eyes that are a normal part of cellular function."

People have been writing and theorizing about phosphenes for thousands of years. Greek philosophers thought the bursts of light were the result of fire inside our heads: "The eye obviously has fire within it, for when the eye is struck fire flashes out," wrote Alcmaeon of Croton (6th–5th century BCE), a philosopher and early neuroscientist, of the swirls and specks someone sees after getting a blow to the head. A century later, Plato—who believed that a "visual current" [PDF] streamed out of the eye—wrote that "Such fire as has the property, not of burning, but of yielding a gentle light they [the Gods] contrived should become the proper body of each day."

Plato's take was still the dominant one through the Middle Ages. Eventually, Newton (1642–1727) theorized a concept that's more in line with what's believed today about these strange sparkly visions: The phenomenon is due to light that's produced and observed when pressure and motion is placed on the eyes.

Eleonora Lad, an associate professor of ophthalmology at Duke University Medical Center who has a background in neuroscience, explains exactly why eye rubbing generates these visions: "Most vision researchers believe that phosphenes result from the normal activity of the visual system after stimulation of one of its parts from some stimulus other than light," including putting external pressure on the eyes. (Interestingly, due to retinal damage, blind people can't see phosphenes caused by pressure, but they can see them when their visual cortex is electrically stimulated. In hopes of turning this phenomenon into improved vision for the blind, scientists have developed a cortical visual prosthesis, implanted in the visual cortex, that generates patterns of phosphenes. The device has been approved by the FDA for clinical trial.)

As Alcmaeon rightly pointed out, there are causes for the bursts of light beyond just rubbing your eyes: Getting hit in the eye can produce this phenomenon—as can a sneeze, a surprisingly powerful event that tends to clamp our eyes shut, Wen says.

Receiving an MRI or EEG may also trigger it. MRIs, for example, produce a changing magnetic field which can stimulate the visual cortex, making a person see these flashing lights. When it comes to an EEG, depending on the brain stimulation frequency band (Hz) used, some patients experience the phenomenon when closing their eyes, which is believed to come from retinal stimulation during the process.

And the activity doesn't only happen on Earth; astronauts in space have also been known to experience them. As reported in 2006 in the journal Vision Research, "over 80 percent of astronauts serving in today's NASA or ESA (European Space Agency) programs have perceived phosphenes at least in some missions and often over several orbits." They're mainly attributed to interactions between the eye and cosmic ray particles in space, outside the Earth's protective magnetic field.

No matter the cause, the bursts of light are perfectly normal—but that doesn't mean you should engage in excessive eye rubbing. Wen says ophthalmologists advise against rubbing your eyes or applying vigorous pressure; according to Lad, too much rubbing may be damaging to the cornea and lens or "result in a loss of fatty tissue around the eyes, causing the eyes to look deep-set."

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