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Columbia’s New Fabric Converts Sweat Into An Eerie Cooling Sensation

Conventional wisdom says that naked people will feel cooler than those wearing clothing. This may no longer be true.

Columbia’s New Fabric Converts Sweat Into An Eerie Cooling Sensation

I’m outside in 85 degree heat with 70% humidity, but my skin has an almost feverish chill. I feel it first on my shoulders, then my back.

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I’m wearing a new shirt from Columbia Sportswear that won’t be out until Spring 2013. It’s fitted with their latest tech called Omni-Freeze Zero. And what I was convinced had to be a gimmick is totally working. 41,000 tiny blue rings embedded in the fabric are absorbing my sweat, swelling imperceptibly and, rather than forcing that sweat to evaporate like a moisture-wicking shirt, they’re using it to cool me, even in these muggy conditions.

Inside these blue rings of polymer await loads of hydrophilic molecules (ones that love water), but their goal isn’t just general evaporation. “As the polymer absorbs moisture, its hydrophilic molecules get excited and try to separate,” Woody Blackford, VP of Innovation at Columbia Sportswear had explained to me earlier. “This mechanical reaction requires energy, and absorbs that energy from your body in the form of heat, creating a prolonged and enduring cooling sensation that lasts as long as the fabric stays wet.”

The fabric doesn’t actually need to soak in your sweat to activate. Even if your skin has the slightest bit of moisture, the passive cooling effect will begin, seeming to peak in about a minute. But it also doesn’t end; 30 minutes into my workout, and I could still perceive the sensation. I wondered what it would be like to pile on some Omni-Freeze Zero leg “warmers” or maybe a headband.

“For as long as people have been wearing clothing the response to hot weather has been pretty intuitive: If it’s hot, take off a layer. If you want to stay absolutely cool, go naked,” Blackford writes. “While it seems counterintuitive, we think this is the first time people will think that to stay cool, you can actually add a layer.”

It was marketing speak, I’d been sure! But Blackford was right: As I negotiated the Midwestern summer heat, every spot that the Omni-Freeze was making direct contact with my skin was cooler. Even as I sit at my desk typing this, I almost can’t believe my hyperbolic memory, so I slip a Zero band around my wrist … and that same surface chill returns, a mind-bending feeling, a heatsink generated by nothing but this thin, soft bit of fabric.

Columbia’s Zero tech will roll out in 40 of their products in Spring 2013, in everything from bandanas to shoes. They promise that it won’t stink over time like every other synthetic shirt I’ve tried, though I’m not sure I believe that claim. Then again, they proved me wrong once in this article already.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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