Background The existence of a third type of sweat gland in human axillary skin, the apoeccrine gland, with a capacity to produce much higher sweat output than the eccrine gland, was proposed from examination of microdissected glands. However, previous studies of axillary skin glands did not examine the entire individual glandular structure via serial sections and the markers used to identify the different glands gave conflicting results and, hence, the existence of the apoeccrine gland remains controversial.
Objectives To investigate human axillary sweat glands by serial section histology and immunofluorescence.
Methods Human axillary sweat glands were investigated by serial sectioning of paraffin wax-embedded skin samples taken by biopsy from four male and six female volunteers (age range 20–35 years). Sections were examined by light microscopy and immunofluorescence, using antibodies to antigens reported to be markers for discriminating between eccrine and apocrine gland cells: CD15, CD44, S100 and human milk fat globulin.
Results Light microscopy demonstrated that there were hair follicles and a mean ± SD of 76 ± 14 sweat glands cm−2. Eccrine and apocrine glands were found to be present; however, no glands resembling the apoeccrine glands were detected. Both types of sweat gland exhibited signs of being active, with segments of the secretory coils displaying flattened cells and dilated glandular lumina; however, this dilation did not extend to obvious changes in the width of the gland. None of the eccrine glands exhibited evidence of the presence of apocrine cells or vice versa. Immunofluorescence markers were found not to be specific and did not discriminate between the different types of glands or demonstrate the presence of apoeccrine glands.
Conclusions This is the first time that serial sections of axillary skin have been examined by histology and immunofluorescence. The markers reported to discriminate between apocrine and eccrine glands were found to be nonspecific. No evidence of apoeccrine glands was found either by histology or by immunofluorescence.