Something that all mothers seem to tell their children is that they need to wear a hat in cold weather because you lose heat out of your hat faster than anywhere else in your body. Most kids simply take this to be true even if they don’t necessarily wear their hats once they are away from their mothers’ watchful eyes.
Of course, other kids do think about it a little bit, and it appears to make sense. Your head has no fat or other insulation to protect it, right? Also, it’s full of activity that would produce heat, right? All types of kids tend to grow up to tell their own children the exact same thing as soon as it gets cold every year.
With all due respect to mothers everywhere, however, it’s simply not true that heat escapes faster from your head than other parts of your body. It’s an extremely common myth.
Origins of the misconception
It turns out the United States Army is responsible for creating this myth. Actually, it’s only partially their fault. In the 1960’s, the United States Army did a detailed study of how the human body reacts in cold weather. The purpose was to be as informed as possible about life in cold climates in case the Cold War turned into a shooting war and United States forces had to fight communists in an Arctic setting.
The report that came out the study had a section that said the human subjects in the study were losing heat out of the their heads up to 45% faster than elsewhere in their bodies, and this was something that the public really ran with once the study was declassified. Parents in particular took note, and a myth was born.
The truth is that you have to read more of the report to get the full context. While subjects did lose heat out of their heads faster than other parts of their bodies, they were wearing cold-weather survival suits that covered everything but their heads! So, in a sense, they were losing heat from their heads faster, but once their heads were covered, they weren’t.
How heat escapes
The physiology of how heat gets out of the human body is pretty simple. Heat escapes equally from whatever part of your body that isn’t covered. If you are just wearing a swimming suit, about ten percent of the your body heat will escape through your head because your head makes up about ten percent of the surface area of your body.
Of course, it’s a good idea to cover your head to prevent heat from escaping. After all, you’re talking about ten percent of the area heat can get through. it’s no more or less important, however, than covering up any other exposed skin, so make sure that you also put gloves on your hands and a scarf around your neck. If you want to be really warm, find a way to cover your face as well.
Other interesting facts
Although heat isn’t getting out of your head faster than anywhere else on your body, your face will likely feel colder than any other part of your body if it isn’t covered. This is because your face is more sensitive in general to changes in the temperature, but it’s still keeping the warmth inside your body just as effectively as anywhere else.
Did you ever wonder what goose bumps raising on your arms when it turns cold is supposed to accomplish? Well, when humans had more body hair, this physical reaction raised up the hair to try and create a natural coat to keep out the cold. Now that humans have less hair on their bodies than we used to, however, the response isn’t especially useful for keeping out the cold. Fortunately, humans have figured out how to make warm clothes and coats!
There are many animals that have a similar response to the cold, and their fur puffs up to help keep them warm. Similarly, the skin of birds in cold weather will rise to puff up their feathers. It’s why many birds seem a little bit larger in winter weather.