9 surprising ways to keep cool in the summer heat

No AC, no problem. There are plenty of ways to stay cool with just a bit of ice, a fan, and these tried-and-true tricks.

No AC, no problem. There are plenty of ways to stay cool with just a bit of ice, a fan, and these tricks

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

This article was originally published July 10, 2018 and was updated July 3, 2020.

With summer comes outdoor festivals, airy dresses, picnics in the park, naps on the balcony, green on the trees… and restless, sweaty, impossibly hot nights. What can a poor city-dweller with no air conditioning do when the temperatures hit 40C+ degrees?

Plenty, as it turns out. Get yourself a few ice packs and a fan; you're five minutes away from cutting that grueling summer heat wave in half!

Eat spicy foods

This might sound like a terrible idea on a hot day, but "hot" foods like cayenne, jalapeño, and habanero peppers get their heat from the chemical capsaicin, which acts as an irritant in humans and gets us to sweat more, cooling us down. As Yale professor Barry Green explained in Scientific American: "Spicy foods excite the receptors in the skin that normally respond to heat…Therefore, the pattern of activity from pain and warm nerve fibres triggers both the sensations and the physical reactions of heat, including vasodilation, sweating, and flushing."

Sleep under a damp towel or sheet

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This will feel especially nice if you have a fan running at the same time. The evaporation of the cloth's water will keep you cool all night, and the sheet or towel will most likely be dry by morning. Dr. Shubhayu Saha, a health scientist at the C.D.C.'s Division of Environmental Health Science and Practice, explains in a recent New York Times article that "when parts of the body with a high concentration of blood vessels near the skin come in contact with the cold, it helps transfer heat out of the body to cool down faster."

Set your ceiling fan to run counter-clockwise

The blades on your ceiling fan are tilted slightly in order to push air either upwards or downwards. In winter, you'll want the blades to turn clockwise, which will pull the cooler air in the room upwards and displace the rising warmth. In the summer, you should switch the rotation to counter-clockwise, pushing more wind currents into the room below. You can do this easily, just find the switch on the body of the fan (there should only be one!) that changes the direction.

Eat less salty food and protein

Salty foods and protein produce metabolic heat when digested and cause water loss. Eat more fruits and vegetables (no need to turn on the oven) and smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. Scientists have known about this relationship between digestion and metabolic heat for many years. In 1936, Dr. G. Booth and J.M. Strang showed that "eating ground beef steak and stewed tomatoes to satiety raised skin temperature an average of 2°C about 1 hour after the meal." That's a lot!

Wet your curtains

This trick has been around for a long time, but I very rarely see my friends trying it at home. Spritzing or soaking your curtains, or leaving the bottoms to sit in buckets of water, is a great way to cool down any incoming sunlight or breeze from the outside. This trick only works if you can get air circulating to evaporate the water, so run a fan at the same time or chose a window with a draft coming through.


Buy or build an ice-pack hat

Strapping a cold compress to your head can work wonders in the blistering heat, especially if you're prone to headaches. You can buy or build your own ice-pack hat, to varying degrees of effectiveness and cost.

For a cheap chill, throw a couple of wet dish towels in the freezer (coil each of them into a "C" beforehand to fit your head when frozen) or pick up two malleable ice-packs from the dollar store. There are specifically designed icy-headbands available online for purchase as well.

Put a bowl of ice in front of your fan

This uber-easy trick is the very best of the DIY air conditioners: just toss a bunch of ice cubes into a metal bowl (or freeze some water straight into the bowl), and set it in front of a running fan. Tilt your fan or the bowl in such a way as to get air flowing directly onto the icy surface, cooling down the blowing air. You'll feel the effect immediately. Remember to refill your ice trays right away to be ready for the next load.

Keep your moisturizers in the fridge

Imagine rubbing cold moisturizer on your forehead — or your feet — in the middle of a hot day. What a relief! And it might be something worth keeping in mind all year long. According to board certified dermatologist Dr. Shirley Chi, M.D., applying your moisturizer after a stint in the fridge can help reduce puffiness and the appearance of rosacea, though oil-based products should not stay in long or they won't absorb as well. For a doubly cooling experience, try this with a tube of aloe vera.

If you're in dry heat: drink something hot

Matter over mind is the rule for this trick. Drinking a hot cup of tea might be the furthest thing from your thoughts right now, but there's a scientific reason for why it, paradoxically, will help cool you down. Dr. Ollie Jay, a researcher at University of Ottawa's School of Human Kinetics, and his team published a study in 2012 proving the effectiveness of this technique. "What we found is that when you ingest a hot drink, you actually have a disproportionate increase in the amount that you sweat," Jay says. "Yes, the hot drink is hotter than your body temperature, but the amount that you increase your sweating by more than compensates for the the added heat to the body from the fluid."

Keep in mind that this trick will only work if your sweat can evaporate off of your body, meaning this won't work very well in humid areas.

Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin (@chloerosewrites) is a journalist and editor based in Montréal. Her previous publications on tech security, gender politics, and finance have appeared in Quartz, CBC, Ha'aretz, Lilith, and The Syrup Trap.