Cooling vests are designed to help keep the core body temperature lower, preventing heat exhaustion and other negative effects of overheating.
But do they really work?
We found the three most common types of cooling vests, looked into the science behind how they work, and evaluated their performance.
Here’s what we found.
Evaporative Cooling Vests
The first type of cooling vest we examined is the evaporative cooling vest. Using the simple principle of evaporative cooling, these vests, towels, headbands, and other products are probably the most common and inexpensive options.
Evaporative cooling vests use highly absorbent fabric that is designed to rapidly absorb cool water when soaked in it. After soaking, the cool water slowly evaporates from the fabric over the course of several hours, usually between four to ten, providing a cooling effect throughout.
Because of the low price point and longer cooling time, evaporative vests and clothing items are popular among athletes and those who work in industrial or outdoor jobs. In fact, there are even vests designed specifically in high-visibility colors like the HyperKewl Evaporative Cooling Hi-Viz Vest from TechNiche to maintain cooling and safety for these workers.
That being said, because they only use evaporation to cool they can only provide about as much cooling as being wet would provide. Workers and athletes practicing in direct sunlight in areas with very hot summers (90-degrees Fahrenheit and more) will probably find that these types of vests offer minimal relief.
Cold Pack Cooling Vests
Cold Pack Vests are vests that feature specially-designed compartments to hold cold packs. Cold packs are often designed to remain pliable even when frozen, allowing them to stay lightweight and easy to wear during activity.
The versatile design of these vests allows you to easily swap cold packs out, and if you have a cooler or something similar in reserve, you can easily get a full day’s worth of cooling out of it. But, that’s with the caveat that each cold pack will probably only last for a couple hours and you’ll need to swap them out.
Looking into the positives and negatives of Cold Pack cooling vests, we found that they fill a middle ground between inexpensive evaporative cooling products and high-end cooling vests with circulatory systems.
Phase Change Cooling Vests
The next type of cooling vest we researched are Phase Change Cooling Vests. Similar to Cold Pack vests in that they feature compartments for cooling packs, these vests work through using a specialized phase-changing material or PCM with a higher than normal freezing point of 58 degrees Fahrenheit.
Packs filled with the PCM are inserted into specialized compartments in the vest where they can provide cooling therapy. Thanks to their high freezing point, they are slower to melt, providing cooling for longer periods, and are faster to refreeze, meaning that reusing the packs is a quick, easy process.
These vests can provide cooling power for about one to four hours. Products such as TechNiche’s Phase Change Cooling Vest with Hydration System boast a functional time of 2.5 to 3 hours before the PCM packs must be refrozen.
Phase Change vests tend to be less expensive than circulatory powered cooling vests, despite offering comparable lengths of cooling therapy time per use. However, unlike circulatory cooling vests, phase change vests may be susceptible to certain regions warming faster than others, as the cooling packs are not circulated.
Circulatory Powered Cooling Vests
The most effective cooling vests we investigated are Circulatory Powered Cooling Vests. As their name implies, these vests operate by continuously circulating ice water throughout the body of the vest.
Most often, the ice water flows through a reservoir such as a wearable backpack or a static cooler that serves as the primary source of the water. The ice water is then pulled from the reservoir and circulated through the tubing of the vest to provide a consistent, long-lasting cooling effect.
In most cases, these vests provide between one to four hours of cooling relief before the ice water loses its cool temperature. The amount of time depends heavily on the insulation of the tubing and the size of the ice water reservoir.
Products like the KewlFlow Circulatory Powered Cooling Vest offer a great example of these type of vests, providing the option of a mobile backpack reservoir or a portable static cooler.
So what do customers point out as the positives and negatives of circulatory powered cooling vests?
These vests have a reputation for providing the most consistent cooling effect of the three vests we will discuss. This is due in large part to the constant circulation of ice water, which ensures that all surfaces remain cool and no areas warm faster or slower than others.
On the negative side, circulatory powered cooling vests tend to be more expensive than other cooling vests. Additionally, the use of a backpack or cooler to contain the ice water may limit mobility or even require the user to remain stationary while using it.
Cooling vests come in a vast array of designs and functions. In the end, they all provide invaluable cooling therapy for a diverse group of people from everyday life to rehabilitation.
In terms of deciding whether or not cooling vests really work, it all comes down to the individual user and the situation that they need cooling in.
As in most products, the less expensive options provide less cooling power, and may not be effective for really hot weather and long periods of activity in direct heat, while better cooling can be accessed in cold pack and circulatory cooling vest designs.
For people looking into purchasing a cooling vest, it’s most important to consider how hot your environment is, how hot-natured you are as a person, the amount of mobility you need to have, and how long you need your cooling power to last.
The key comes down to understanding how each type of cooling vest operates and how well that fits your needs. At the end of the day, yes, cooling vests work, but how well they work comes down to how you’re using it and your individual needs.
If you liked this article and found it helpful, feel free to check out the rest of our articles on Caregiver University.
Hulet Smith, OT
Co-founder/CEO of Rehabmart, Pediatric Occupational Therapist, husband, and father. Passionate about connecting special needs kids with superb nutrition, sensory integration, and complementary health strategies. Excited about Rehabmart's mission to become the premier online educational platform which empowers caregivers by spotlighting innovative devices and interventions to achieve optimal patient response and recovery.
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