To help beat the heat while spending time outside or working out, many people turn to portable fans to provide a cool breeze. Those devices, however, can be cumbersome to carry around and run out of battery fairly quickly. Cooling towels, on the other hand, provide quick relief and only need water to work.
After dampening the cloth (which is about the size of a hand towel) and draping it across your skin, a cooling towel transfers heat away from your body into the air. The towels, which are cold to the touch, offer a refreshing chill that lasts for hours, and roll up or fold up when not in use, making them easy to throw in your bag.
We talked to experts about the science behind cooling towels and their effectiveness, plus we rounded up highly rated options we think you should know about.
Our top picks
- Top-rated cooling towel multipack: Sukeen Cooling Towel 4-Pack
- Top-rated cooling gaiter: Mission Cooling Neck Gaiter
- Top-rated cooling towel for travel: Tough Outfitters Cooling Towel
How we picked top-rated cooling towels
When shopping for cooling towels, experts recommend considering the following factors:
Fabric type: Cooling towels are usually made from PVA (polyvinyl alcohol) or microfibers (fine synthetic fibers). PVA has high-moisture absorption, so the more water that’s present, the faster the material (in this case PVA) conducts heat away from your body, says Preethi Gopinath, an associate professor of textiles at Parsons School of Design. Microfibers are composed of many tiny fibers, which increases the fabric’s surface area and contributes to its ability to help moisture evaporate quickly, says Gopinath. Evaporation is key to getting your body to cool down, according to our experts
Size: Most cooling towels are similar in size to hand towels, although dimensions vary per brand. When deciding what size is best for you, think about how much of your body you’ll want the cooling towel to cover, and whether you’ll want to tie it, which may require a longer towel. Cooling towels are also available in shapes like loops and hoods.
Highly rated cooling towels to shop
Most cooling towels look and function the same — though they’ll stay cool for varying amounts of time. They also come in different sizes and colors, and some are available in multipacks or with carrying cases.
Based on expert guidance, we rounded up a handful of highly rated cooling towels below. All options we recommend are made from PVA or microfibers, and some are also made of polyester, which experts say is commonly used to produce microfiber.
4.5-star average rating from 20,099 reviews on Amazon
I ran my first 10K race on a humid 90-degree summer day and didn’t come prepared to combat the heat — other runners, thankfully, did. Many brought these cooling towels, which I bought per their recommendation and have since used for years. The cooling towels are thin and lightweight so they don’t distract me while I’m running. (I also use them during hot yoga classes.)
These machine-washable cooling towels, which are long enough to tie into a headband or gaiter, have UPF 50 protection, and stay cool for up to three hours, according to the brand. Each individual towel comes in a reusable plastic carrying pouch with a carabiner clip so you can attach it to bags or backpacks.
Size: 40x12 in. | Fabric: Microfiber
4.4-star average rating from 28,617 reviews on Amazon
This cooling towel is shaped in a loop so you can put it over your head and wear it as a neck gaiter, headband, bandana or hood. It’s machine-washable, has UPF 50 protection and stays cool for up to two hours, according to the brand. Mission also makes a smaller youth-sized cooling gaiter, as well as other cooling products like traditional towels, sweat towels, a hoodie and a full-body towel.
Size: 21x10 in. | Fabric: Polyester and spandex
4.4-star average rating from 7,367 reviews on Amazon
Since it’s made from a thick PVA material, Chill Pal’s cooling towel acts like a sponge — the more water you let it absorb, the longer it takes to evaporate and the longer it will stay cold, according to the brand. Like other options on our list, the machine-washable towel comes in a reusable storage pouch with a carabiner clip. Chill Pal also offers mesh cooling towels if you prefer the feel of mesh, and a cooling gaiter.
Size: 32x12 in. | Fabric: PVA
4.5-star average rating from 9,927 reviews on Amazon
The interior of this cooling towel is reinforced with mesh to help it stay together and prevent fraying if you cut it, according to the brand. This is beneficial if you want to make your towel shorter or narrower, or cut it in half so you have two. The machine-washable towel has UPF 50+ protection and comes in a reusable plastic tube you can use for storage.
Size: 33x13 in. | Fabric: PVA
4.5-star average rating from 7,285 reviews on Amazon
This option is designed to fold into its included compact carrying case, making it convenient to keep in a backpack or fanny pack while running — especially during the warmer months. Like others on our list, the machine-washable towel has UPF 50 protection and stays cool for up to two hours, according to the brand.
Size: 38.5x12 in. | Fabric: Polyester blend
How do cooling towels work?
To activate the chilling effect of a cooling towel you’ll need to: soak it in water, ring out the excess liquid and snap or shake it a few times to circulate air throughout. After doing so, the towel gets cold, which you’ll immediately feel when you put it on your skin. That’s because water is a great conductor of heat, says Dr. Daniel V. Vigil, a sports medicine specialist and health sciences clinical professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.
The moisture in a cooling towel’s fabric absorbs heat off your skin and conducts it away from your body into the air through evaporation — hence why cooling towels are often called evaporative cooling towels. As this process plays out for a prolonged period of time, your body temperature decreases, making you feel cooler, says Vigil.
Using a cooling towel mimics the process of what happens when people sweat, according to Gopinath. Our bodies’ main way of dissipating heat is through evaporation, so as moisture (in this case, sweat) moves to the surface of our skin and evaporates, our bodies begin to cool, says Vigil.
The best places to put a cooling towel
Vigil recommends putting a cooling towel on areas on your body where you have big blood vessels, like behind the neck, the armpits and the groin area. When you’re hot, your blood vessels dilate so more blood flows near the surface of your body, making it feel warm to the touch. This is what allows heat to naturally dissipate and cool you off. Putting a cooling towel over those areas helps speed that natural process up by evaporating heat and cooling down your skin.
Can you freeze cooling towels?
You shouldn’t — the moisture inside will freeze and the towel will get hard, making it too stiff to unfold and drape across your body. You can, however, put a cooling towel in the refrigerator to make it extra cold.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Preethi Gopinath is an associate professor of textiles at Parsons School of Design.
- Dr. Daniel V. Vigil is a sports medicine specialist and health sciences clinical professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. He is also the associate head team physician for UCLA’s Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, caring for and advising patients across a wide variety of sports.
Why trust Select?
Zoe Malin is an associate updates editor who writes about health and wellness-related products like sunscreen, face masks, Covid-19 tests and more. For this article, she interviewed two experts about how cooling towels work and how to shop for them. She researched highly rated cooling towels and chose options that meet expert shopping guidance.