The most effective and cheapest ways to cool your body during a heat wave, according to scientists

A Texas volunteer hands out bottles of water during a heat wave.Shelby Tauber/Reuters

  • Heat waves will hit the world again in 2022, leaving people scrambling to cool down.

  • Insider asks two scientists for simple, effective, and inexpensive ways to cool off.

  • Regulating your diet, fluid intake, and cooling down key parts of the body can go a long way.

As extreme heat waves sweep across the US and the world, Insider asked two scientists for evidence-based advice on how to stay cool. We also asked them to focus on tips that don’t cost much.

Put your hands or feet in cold water.

In extreme heat, the body opens the blood vessels that are close to the skin. The blood carries heat from inside the body to the surface, where it can benefit from the cooling effect of evaporating sweat.

To keep cool easily, focus on the parts of the body with many blood vessels: hands, wrists, feet, ankles, and armpits.

George Havenith, a professor of environmental physiology and ergonomics at Loughborough University, recommended placing cooling pads on those areas or submerging them in water.

If you can, swimming or taking a cold bath or shower is also very effective.

You can also spray your skin with water or wet your shirt, Havenith said. This cools the skin like sweat, but without stripping the body of any of its own moisture.

People walk barefoot in a large water fountain in the sun.

People cool off in a fountain during a heat wave in Nice, France, on July 13, 2022.Serge Haouzi/Xinhua via Getty Images

eat light meals

Eating lighter meals like salads is another common sense advice with scientific backing.

This is because light foods require less energy to digest and produce less heat within the body. “More complex foods will ultimately produce more heat in the body as they break down,” said Owen Jeffries, professor of Sport and Exercise Physiology at Newcastle University.

However, Jeffries cautioned that hot weather can reduce your appetite, so it’s important not to make sure you’re eating enough.

Use an electric fan, but be careful in very hot weather.

A fan helps cool you down by helping sweat evaporate faster. It can be as effective as air conditioning and is much cheaper.

“It is perfectly safe, and preferable to air conditioning, to use an electric fan up to 35°C,” (95°F) said Jeffries.

“What you can do is, in terms of simple steps, put a bowl of ice cubes in front of the fan,” Havenith said.

“You can feel the air is cooler when you do that,” he said.

In very hot weather, such as temperatures above 95°F, the World Health Organization recommends not using a ventilator.

In dry heat, sweat is already evaporating with maximum efficiency. All a fan could do is blow more hot air over you.

And in humid heat, the air is so humid that sweat can’t evaporate, potentially rendering it ineffective.

A boy in a mask, visor and light-protective hood holds an electric fan to his face.

A boy wearing sun-protective clothing cools off with a portable electric fan on July 14, 2022 in Chongqing, China.He Penglei/China News Service via Getty Images

Unless you’re working out, sports drinks won’t rehydrate you faster than water, but milk will.

Havenith and Jeffries pointed to a 2016 study on rehydration that compared various beverages.

He found that sports drinks, sparkling water, and Coca-Cola were no better than water.

However, skim milk, whole milk, and orange juice were marginally better at rehydrating the body.

The downside of sports drinks is that they contain “a lot of sugar,” Jeffries said. Unless you’re exercising, that sugar goes unused and turns into fat.

Coffee was surprisingly good at rehydrating in small amounts (although slightly worse than water).

Both scientists noted that tap water does the job, which is by far the cheapest option.

Drink before you feel thirsty

People start to get thirsty after losing 2% of their body fluids, Havenith said. It is better to drink before that happens.

You can check your urine to see if you are dehydrated. “If that gets darker, that’s a clear sign you’re not drinking enough,” she said.

“It’s better to sip water throughout the day rather than drink large volumes at once,” Jeffries said, because large intakes are likely to end up in the bladder and quickly leave the body.

Also, make sure you don’t drink excessively, which in itself can be dangerous.

A man drops water on his forehead from a plastic bottle.

A man cooling off during the heat wave in Madrid, Spain, on July 12, 2022.Ricardo Rubio/Europa Press via Getty Image

Very cold drinks work, but they can also make you sick

Studies show that beverages like ice slushies can cool the body, Jeffries said.

But they can backfire if the body reacts poorly to the sudden change.

“If you drink cold water, you always have to make sure your stomach does and your intestines don’t churn,”
Havenith said. “If that happens, you could have diarrhea, throw up, lose a lot of electrolytes.”

be careful with exercise

In hot weather, it’s a good idea to avoid strenuous exercise, unless you’ve trained specifically for the heat.

“You have this competition between the muscles and blood flow to the skin,” Havenith said.

Interestingly, people who exercise regularly may be at higher risk of heat exhaustion due to being overconfident and pushing their limits, Havenith said.

“Normally the very fit person will do more. And that’s why often it can’t be the very fit people who have problems.”

A man jogs along a canal.

A man jogs along Regent’s Canal in London during the city’s 2018 heatwave.Images by Kirsty O’Connor/PA via Getty Images

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