IMPORTANT: Before purchasing any cooling vest or cooling technology, ActiveMSers recommends reading our detailed Cooling Vest Buying Guide, a comprehensive look at the different types of cooling options available, complete with plusses and minuses of each type. Although we highly recommend many of the vests in this test, other cooling vests and technologies may be better suited for your individual situation.
Reviewed: 13 Cooling Vests
Updated June 24, 2014
Thirteen cooling vests. Nine manufacturers. Multiple cooling strategies. A battery of tests. Weighted rankings in thirteen categories. At the conclusion of an exhaustive month-long review of cooling vests, ActiveMSers uncovers the players and the also-rans in this competitive market to help people with multiple sclerosis (and those with other disabilities) make an informed and educated purchasing decision when it comes to beating the heat.
Scientists have been investigating the power of cooling in multiple sclerosis for decades. Indeed, in 1977, researchers subjected patients with multiple sclerosis to moderate hypothermia, which resulted in a “striking improvement” of symptoms. (Except for, it should be noted, the necessary amputation of several fingers and toes. Oh, I jest.) Cooling vests entered the scene in the 1980s and started to make MSers reexamine hibernation during the summertime. Today, I’d consider them an essential tool for managing heat-related symptoms brought on by this disease, as they allow you to explore further, exercise harder, and extract more out of life.
Nine independent manufacturers provided ActiveMSers a total of 13 cooling vests for review and testing. Four of the vests utilize phase change technology, which activates at warmer temperatures (58 to 82°F), five use water-activated gel and four employ variations of ice. Two of the vests feature secondary evaporative cooling.
Unlike our 2011 testing, which employed a number of unbiased temperature-related tests to gauge vest effectiveness, reviewing cooling vests this year required new procedures and more subjective review. Why? Vests/cooling elements start at different temps, and colder is not necessarily better. We asked CJ Skok, a neurosciences student from Indiana University, who wrote a technical white paper on the effects of cooling on multiple sclerosis, to explain the science.
“Thermoregulation, a component of homeostasis, helps maintain optimal temperatures in your body. When the skin is lowered to this low of a temperature, a process called vasoconstriction or the constriction of the superficial blood vessels occurs. Normal skin temperature is typically around 90°F, so vasoconstriction inevitably occurs when you cool your skin to this level. As this happens, less heat is being brought to the skin and thereby less heat can be given off by the body. Thus, while at first this may feel beneficial to the user, it can actually become counterproductive and even potentially dangerous. … A new technology is now available, where phase change materials are “tuned” to an optimum cooling temperature of 82°F. By having a smaller difference in temperature when compared to skin temperature (i.e. 90°F vs. 82°F), vasoconstriction will not occur and blood flow will continue normally. This allows the transfer of heat from the skin cooling not only superficial blood vessels, but also the core temperature.”
Testing the IZI BodyCooler in humid Houston.
A cooling vest can get you outdoors in the heat of the summer.
Our first test established a baseline for performance expectations. The objective extreme hot weather test involved placing a fully charged cooling element (placed overnight in a 0°F freezer) from each vest—or in the case of vests without removable elements, the vest itself—on a surface preheated to 98°F (aka, stone patio table in sun). The elements were monitored until failure, noted in parentheses in the following list. Gel vests failed first, followed by ice elements and smaller phase change elements. First Line Technology’s pack and the largest of the phase change inserts failed last.
IZI Body Cooling Vest (40 minutes)
Polar Products Cool Comfort Hybrid Vest (50 minutes)
Arctic Heat Ice Vest (55 minutes)
StaCool ThermoPak (60 minutes)
Coolture CoolPak (60 minutes)
Maranda FlexiFreeze Panel (60 minutes)
Steele Thermo-Strips (60 minutes)
Polar Products Soft Ice (60 minutes)
TechNiche CoolPax (60 minutes)
Polar Products Cool58 400g (60 minutes)
First Line Technology PhaseCore (65 minutes)
Glacier Tek RPCM (80 minutes)
Polar Products Cool58 500g (85 minutes)
Perfect punishing conditions for our cooling elements.
The final three: PhaseCore, RPCM, and Cool58.
Our second objective test was a coldness test to gauge vest safety. In our 2011 test we found temperatures too low to recommend two of the four vests tested. The Mayo Clinic recommends icing injuries no more than 20 minutes to prevent frostbite. For a control, I filled a Ziploc bag with ice from my 0°F freezer, covered it with a T-shirt (experts also recommend a thin towel for static ice application), and measured temps below the T-shirt. Temperatures dipped as low as 36°F. I retested with a fresh batch of ice and without a T-shirt, and temps fell a full 9 degrees cooler, down to 27°F. Vests were measured similarly, and all but one of the ice-powered vests failed. The Steele ice vest plunged into the 20s, while the Polar Fashion ice vest and the FlexiFreeze ice vest dipped into the mid 30s for extended periods of time. For this reason, ActiveMSers cautions users to add an extra clothing layer for protection with these three vests.
The Mayo Clinic recommends icing injuries for no more than 20 minutes.
Vintage Wash Crew Under-Vest Tee
Most cooling vest manufacturers recommend a light shirt be worn under the vest to both prevent chaffing and to maintain vest cleanliness. Alas, many T-shirts are made of thick cotton and weigh 6 ounces or more. ActiveMSers has teamed with MStshirts.com to procure the ideal under-vest T-shirt. Weighing 3.7 ounces (fabric weight), this under-vest tee is among the lightest of any shirt available on the market and is perfectly suited to be worn under phase change cooling vests or on its own. Made of 100% ring spun combed breathable cotton, the tee comes in the unisex sizes of XS, S, M, L, XL, 2XL, 3XL,and has a well-loved look thanks to its garment wash treatment. Available in white, black, blue and red. Price: $12.
Our last round of testing focused on subjective matters. Basically, how much does this Dave guy really know about cooling vests, which he’s studied for years and about which he has gotten regular input from some of the leading cooling researchers in the world (one of whom happens to be a professor in his home state). Vests were ranked in the following categories on a scale of 1-5 (5 being the highest). Note that low rankings in certain areas may not be applicable when it comes to your needs for a cooling vest. For example, if your weight tends not to fluctuate, purchasing a fitted vest with little adjustability is not much of a concern. If you only plan to wear the vest over your clothes, concealability is moot.
How smartly put together is the vest? Are the cooling packs easy to insert, does the Velcro need extra attention to line up, are pockets in the right places? Are there any obvious flaws?
How well does the vest fit? Is it too baggy or too confining? Is there gapping where there shouldn’t be gapping? Does it properly hang over the shoulders? Is movement restricted?
How adjustable is the vest? Can the wearer adjust fitting around the chest? The waist? The shoulders? If your new diet/exercise routine is successful and you lose 15 lbs, can you adjust the vest to make it fit? Can your skinnier/fatter cousin borrow it?
How long does the vest perform when worn as directed? If a vest is geared toward athletics, how long does the vest last taking into account the increased body heat generated by exercising?
How comfortable is the vest to wear, sit in, lie down in, walk in? Do the cooling packs feel comfortable on your body or are they too lumpy? Does the vest accommodate plus sizes well?
Does the entire vest or individual cold packs need to be frozen? Is the vest easy to put on, store? When your spouse buys frozen chicken from Costco, will it necessitate removing the vest or ice elements for a few days from the freezer to make room?
Can the vest be worn under clothing, and if so, how hidden is the vest? Does the collar show? Will your friends know you are wearing one? Will people whisper “Hulk smash!” behind your back? Is it even a vest you would typically consider wearing under clothing?
Can the vest be used in a variety of situations? Can it be worn to dinner, on the bus on the way to work, to Wednesday night softball, to an outdoor concert, to the gym? Can it handle high humidity? If cooling is depleted, can you recharge it quickly or swap out the exhausted cooling packs for fresh ones?
How easy is it to transport the vest and its cooling elements? Do the elements require freezing or just refrigeration? Do they even require precooling? Can they be recharged in ice water? Can the vest be recharged easily outside the home, or do you ideally need a sink (to charge the vest), a washing machine (to dry the vest), and then a freezer large enough to chill the vest (bigger than the hotel mini-bar)?
How is the workmanship of the vest and its cooling elements? Are quality materials used in construction? Do the seams line up, is the fabric nice? Do the cold packs leak?
How comfortable does the vest feel over a single T-shirt in relation to cold? Is it too cold? Is there a risk for frostbite or frostnip (score of 1). Should an extra clothing layer be worn for safety?
Does the vest make the wearer’s clothes damp? Will condensation from melting cooling elements wet the vest? Does the vest need to be immersed in water to activate? Does frost build up on the cooling elements when frozen?
High tech lining, quality fabrics and customization from Coolture.
Is the vest concealable? In this case, not so much.
Polar Products Cool Comfort Hybrid was the dampest vest tested.
COST-FREE VESTS. Please don’t assume willy nilly that you can’t afford a cooling vest--insurance may cover it if you have a prescription from your doctor (and the VA typically covers vest purchases, active or passive). Better yet, the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America (www.myMSAA.org) provides free vests for those with limited incomes (see if you qualify) as does the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation (www.msfocus.org).
There technically are no winners or losers in ActiveMSers’ latest cooling vest review. Yes, there are some vests that surprised, even stunned, and there are vests that had significant flaws. But bottom line: all tested cooling vests have attributes that make them attractive. And pricing is a huge factor, with our least expensive vest coming in at under $60, with the priciest at $370--six times the cost. It bears repeating that while this test and previous tests done by ActiveMSers shed light on how well certain cooling vests perform, if they remain in your closet because you are too embarrassed to wear them, well, then they are of zero help. So buy what you'll wear (and can afford) and perhaps add a cooling neck wrap, cooling pods, or cooling towel to your arsenal against the heat. Pay attention to the manufactuer's return policy--most are 30 days for a full refund less shipping (First Line Technology, Polar Products, etc.) provided the vests are returned in like new condition with original packaging. And don't forget to use other free tools that are effective at lowering the core temperature: cool baths and iced slushies. Finally, please note testing dates, as invidual vest reviews will continue to evolve as testing and user feedback continues on all of the vests. What works for one person, might not work as well for another. Stay cool!
Members of ActiveMSers can save up to 20% on select cooling vests with reserved coupon codes. To get your discount, join today by signing upfor our newsletter. NOTE: ActiveMSers has negotiated these discounts and has no other affiliation with these companies and receives no compensation or commission of any kind. Vests were donated for testing purposes.