Is using cotton clothing dangerous in freezing temperatures?

Is using cotton clothing dangerous in freezing temperatures?
With the exception of people living in the most southerly climes, being outdoors in the winter means our relatively poorly insulated bodies will be exposed to the cold. This is where wearing the right clothing can make the difference between being protected and comfortable or vulnerable and miserable. The following common sayings related to dressing for the cold may not be completely accurate, but each contains a valuable message.

“Cotton kills” 
While this saying is somewhat of an exaggeration, cotton clothing ranks at the bottom of the list of appropriate fabrics for cold weather active wear.  With outdoor activity, perspiration is absorbed into cotton layers that are touching or near the skin. As the air pockets in the fabric fill up with water, it ceases to provide insulation. A damp layer of clothing against the skin pulls heat away from the body and can rapidly lower body temperature. Furthermore, wet, cotton clothing takes much longer to dry than comparably weighted synthetic fabrics.  Garments labeled as corduroy, denim, flannel, or duck are mostly, or entirely, made from cotton. Clothing made from synthetic fabrics or wool is more appropriate, particularly during physical activity in the cold.

“If your feet get cold, put on a hat”
The notion that the body loses more heat from the head and neck has been somewhat dispelled. Studies have shown that the rate of heat loss is essentially the same for any exposed area of the body. Since the area of the head and neck makes up approximately 10 percent of body surface area, this area accounts for a similar percentage of heat dissipation. It is still a good idea to put on a hat and scarf when outdoors in cold weather. Most people find covering the head and neck to be more comfortable when in the cold and it provides a means to ventilate quickly by removing the hat if you overheat.

“Dress in layers”
There are a number of advantages to dressing in layers rather than wearing a single heavy garment. The basic idea is that warm air is “trapped” between the layers providing more warmth to the body. Also, it is possible to choose layers that each contribute to a “system”, with special layers designed to keep the skin dry, provide insulation, and to protect us from wind and rain. Synthetic fabrics, such as Capilene, work best as base layers, worn against the skin. These fabrics keep the skin dry by “wicking” moisture away. A middle, insulating layer of wool, synthetic fleece, or Thinsulate works by trapping air to keep you warm. Goose down is also a great insulator, but it loses almost all of its insulating properties should it become wet. The outer shell layer should be both windproof and waterproof.  Ideally, this garment also “breathes” to allow moisture to escape from the body. Gore-Tex and Entrant are trade names of fabrics with these characteristics. Using layers of clothing also allows you to control your temperature more effectively. Should you become overheated or begin to sweat during activity or exercise, you can remove or open up a layer to ventilate. As you cool down, zip up or add a layer.

“Mittens are warmer than gloves” 
To a large degree, the warmth of mittens or gloves depends on the insulating properties and thickness of the materials used in their construction. When constructed similarly, however, mittens are warmer than gloves because the extra air inside create added insulation, and because fingers maintain their warmth better when they are touching. “Dressing in layers” can apply to the hands also. For example, a thin glove liner beneath a mid-weight glove or mitten can be warmer than a single heavy glove. Be sure that your gloves are not too tight – constricting circulation can lead to cold hands. If exerting yourself in cold, wet conditions, consider carrying a spare pair of gloves or mittens in the inside pocket of your jacket. This gives you a warm, dry set of hand wear to put on should your fingers become cold.

An old Norwegian saying sums it up: “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”. Wintertime can be a wonderful time to get outside, but not if your clothing is not up to the task. A little preparation and the right combination of clothing can make all the difference in your winter outdoor enjoyment.

If you have any more questions just Ask Hanna, our health advisors are here to help.
Image: ©Shutterstock / ESB Professional

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