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I ran my first 10K on a humid 90-degree summer day, which made for a less than enjoyable experience. Since it was my first race, I didn't come prepared to combat the heat — other runners, thankfully, did. Many brought evaporative cooling towels — and extras for first-timers like me — to wear around their necks. The lightweight towel was cold to the touch when damp and provided a refreshing chill during and after the race. It stayed cold for multiple hours and was low-profile enough that it didn't get in the way while I was running.
I’ve used cooling towels while running in the warmer months ever since, as well as on hikes. They’ve become a staple in my brother’s lacrosse bag and when I was a counselor, they were one of the top items I recommended campers buy to stay cool outside.
As temperatures across the country continue to rise this summer and many look for items they can use to cool off, cooling towels may be of interest. But do they really work? We consulted experts about the science behind cooling towels and their effectiveness, as well as rounded up the best options from retailers like Amazon, Walmart and more.
SKIP AHEAD Best cooling towels
How do cooling towels work
The instructions on any cooling towel tell you to soak it in water, ring out the excess liquid and snap or shake it a few times (to circulate air throughout) before applying it to your skin. The underlying principle behind how cooling towels work from there has to do with water’s ability to “conduct heat really well,” according to Preethi Gopinath, an associate professor of textiles at Parsons School of Design. She said the moisture in the towel’s fabric absorbs heat off your skin and conducts it away from your body into the surrounding air through evaporation — hence the name “evaporative cooling towels.” This results in the skin and body temperature decreasing, effectively cooling the body.
“This is the same principle of what happens when we sweat,” Gopinath said. “The evaporating sweat helps to cool the overheated body.”
Sports medicine specialist Daniel V. Vigil, MD, said the method by which cooling towels aim to decrease body temperature is effective, physiologically speaking. He noted that specific areas on your body more favorably dissipate heat, notably the armpits, groin area and behind your neck. “These are places where you have big blood vessels that carry lots of hot blood,” said Vigil, a health sciences clinical professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. “That’s the best place to put the cold towel.”
Best cooling towels of 2021
While cooling towels can be made from many different materials, some fabric fibers specifically help the product function. For example, Gopinath said PVA (Polyvinyl Alcohol), a synthetic material, has high moisture absorbency, and the more water present in the fabric, the faster it will conduct away from your body. Additionally, microfibers (fine synthetic fibers) “exponentially increase the fabric's surface area and the fibers have excellent moisture transport — or wicking — capacity,” Gopinath said. “This means moisture will evaporate faster over a larger surface area,” leading to a “faster and greater cooling effect.”
Most cooling towels look and function the same, and are activated in the same way — through being soaked in water. But you can purchase them in different sizes and colors, and some come in multi-packs or with carrying cases. Different towels also stay cool for varying amounts of time. Here are some highly rated cooling towels you can use this summer.
Sunkeen’s mesh cooling towels come in a four-pack, allowing you to either place multiple on your body or share with family and friends. The towels are 40 inches by 12 inches and you can purchase sets in different color combinations. They stay cool for up to three hours, according to the brand, and each individual towel comes in a reusable plastic carrying pouch with a carabiner clip so you can attach it to bags or backpacks. The cooling towel set has a 4.5-star average rating from 4,458 reviews on Amazon.
When some cooling towels dry, they’re stiff and rigid. This towel is designed with mesh fabric, which the brand claims helps it dry soft and makes it easier to fold and store. It also comes with its own carrying pouch and a carabiner clip. The towel, which is 12 inches by 40 inches, has a 4.5-star average rating from 3,917 reviews on Amazon.
While it’s activated and can be used just like a cooling towel, this cooling neck gaiter — which comes in multiple colors and patterns — is shaped in a loop you can put over your head. It can be worn around your neck or as a headband, bandana or hood. The brand says the towel stays cool for up to two hours. The product is the No. 1 bestselling item in Men’s Outdoor Recreation Neck Gaiters on Amazon and has a 4.5-star average rating from more than 9,000 reviews on the retailer’s website. It’s also machine-washable and its fabric provides UPF 50 protection.
This machine-washable PVA cooling towel is 33 inches by 13 inches large and provides UPF 50 protection. It comes in a hard plastic tube you can use for storage, and the brand says it stays cool for up to four hours. It has a 4.5-star average from 7,480 reviews on Amazon and is available in a variety of colors, like Black and Hivis Orange.
Designed to fold into its compact carrying case when not in use, this polyester mesh cooling towel has a 4.5-star average rating from 4,222 reviews on Amazon. It provides UPF 50 protection and is available in 10 colors like Dark Gray, Purple and Bright Green. The towel is machine-washable and remains soft when it dries, according to the brand.