Beat the Heat with a Wet T-Shirt

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The summer of 2020 will go down in history books because of the novel coronavirus pandemic but also possibly for record heat and humidity across much of the U.S. In some areas of the country, cooling centers and public pools may not be open due to public health concerns. Indoor gatherings are discouraged to promote physical distancing. High unemployment rates may mean those who are struggling to pay the bills don’t have access to air conditioning on a regular basis. Simply put, some people may find it very tough to stay cool.

Older people have a higher risk of heat-related illness in the summer, especially in extreme heat events such as a heat wave. One reason for this is because humans aren’t able to sweat as much as we age. Retired older adults who live on a limited budget or have reduced mobility may also have challenges accessing reliable and regular air conditioning. Electric fans may provide some relief, but in the hottest weather, it’s often not enough. But now, research is showing that a surprisingly low-tech solution could help.

Research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology looked at an inexpensive, do-it-yourself cooling method that could be put to use during hot, humid weather. The study volunteers—averaging 68 years old—sat in a room with an ambient temperature of 108 degrees F and a relative humidity of 34%. They could drink as much lukewarm water as they wanted while the researchers measured their body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure. Each volunteer participated in three scenarios:

  • a “dry” session where they wore a dry cotton T-shirt,
  • a “wet” session where they wore a cotton T-shirt soaked in about two cups of water, and
  • a second “wet” session where they wore a wet cotton T-shirt and sat in front of an electric fan.

After measuring the evaporation of water and sweat from the volunteers’ T-shirts in each scenario, the researchers found that the wet T-shirt was the winner when comparing the reduction in heat strain. It may seem surprising that using a fan when wearing the soaked shirt did not provide more cooling. The researchers explained that blowing hot air over the skin actually adds heat to the body, which limits the rate of evaporation.

So, on the next hot summer day when you feel like you’re going to melt, you only need to go as far as your kitchen sink, garden hose or shower. Soak your shirt, wring it out and wear it proudly.

Erica Roth

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