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.
SKIP AHEAD Best cooling towels
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. I use cooling towels indoors, too. I bring them to hot yoga classes and always keep one in my gym bag.
Cooling towels can be great to keep on hand if you live in a warm climate, during the summer months or for workouts, but do they really work? We consulted experts about the science behind cooling towels and their effectiveness, as well as rounded up highly-rated options.
The best cooling towels
While cooling towels can be made from many different materials, two fabric fibers help them perform their best: PVA (Polyvinyl Alcohol) and microfibers (fine synthetic fibers).
Preethi Gopinath, an associate professor of textiles at Parsons School of Design, said PVA, a synthetic material, has high moisture absorbency, which means that the more water that’s present, the faster it will conduct heat away from your body. And microfibers are composed of many tiny fibers, which “exponentially increases the fabric's surface area,” Gopinath said. This contributes to microfibers’ excellent moisture transport — or moisture-wicking — capacity, which allows moisture to evaporate faster.
With this guidance in mind, we recommended cooling towels made from PVA or microfibers — some are also designed with polyester, which experts said is commonly used to produce microfiber. Most cooling towels look and function the same, and are activated when soaked in water. That said, they come 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 may want to consider.
Size: 40 inches by 12 inches
Rating: 4.5-star average rating from over 15,600 Amazon reviews
Unlike the rest of the cooling towels here, Sukeen’s microfiber mesh option comes in a four-pack. This means you can place multiple on your body at once, share them with others or save them for later. The towels 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. You can purchase the towels in different color combinations like blue, grey, green and pink, for example.
Size: 12 inches by 40 inches
Rating: 4.5-star average rating from over 5,200 Amazon reviews
Like the Sukeen, Chill Pal’s blue cooling towel is designed with microfiber mesh fabric, which the brand says helps it dry soft and makes it easier to fold and store. It only comes in one color, but it comes with its own carrying pouch and a carabiner clip.
Size: 33 inches by 13 inches
Rating: 4.5-star average from over 10,000 Amazon reviews
This machine-washable PVA cooling towel provides UPF 50 protection, the brand says. It comes in a hard plastic tube you can use for storage, and it stays cool for up to four hours, according to Frogg Toggs. The towel is available in nine colors, like black, hivis orange and more.
Size: 38.5 inches by 12 inches
Rating: 4.5-star average rating from over 6,300 Amazon reviews
Designed to fold into its compact carrying case when not in use, this cooling towel is made from polyester mesh. The towel provides UPF 50 protection and is available in 10 colors like dark gray, purple and bright green. It’s machine-washable and remains soft when it dries, according to the brand.
Size: 10 inches by 21 inches
Rating: 4.9-star average rating from over 600 Mission reviews
This cooling neck gaiter is named as such because it’s shaped in a loop you can put over your head but functions like a cooling towel. It’s made from fabric composed of polyester and spandex, and the brand says the towel stays cool for up to two hours. According to Mission, it can be worn around your neck or as a headband, bandana or hood. The machine-washable towel provides UPF 50 protection, the brand says, and it comes in six colors including cobalt blue, black, charcoal and more. You can also buy a smaller youth-sized gaiter that measures 7.5 inches by 8 inches.
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 Gopinath.
Gopinath also told us 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.”
The method by which cooling towels aim to decrease body temperature is effective, physiologically speaking, said Dr. Daniel V. Vigil, a sports medicine specialist and health sciences clinical professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. 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. “That’s the best place to put the cold towel.”