How to Keep Cool When You Don’t Have Air Conditioning at Home

People and their pets rest at a cooling center in Portland, Oregon
People and their pets rest at the Oregon Convention Center cooling station in Portland, Oregon during an extreme heat wave on June 28, 2021. KATHRYN ELSESSER / AFP via Getty Images
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Ask a climate scientist, and they’ll confirm what you already suspect: it’s getting hotter. Much hotter. 

19 of the 20 hottest years recorded have occurred since 2000, and the last seven have each been hotter than the last. 2021 took the cake as the hottest year on record, and 2022 is shaping up to be another banner year as runaway climate change continues. Places where air conditioners were once unnecessary are now faced with record temperatures and residents are adjusting to a new climate reality. 

Here’s how to stay cool and safe this summer, even without an air conditioner. 

Take a Cool Shower or Go for a Swim

Lowering your core temperature — the internal temperature of your body — is key to avoiding heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Cool off with a cold shower or a quick swim if you have access to a body of water, and your body will lose heat through conduction: the transfer of your body temperature to the water. To enhance the chill, use peppermint soap or essential oils in the shower. The menthol in peppermint is a cooling agent that activates cold-sensing nerves — think about how your mouth feels cool when eating a piece of peppermint chocolate. The same will happen to your body while you’re soaking in the bathtub.

Cool Your Pulse Points 

At your body’s pulse points, the blood vessels are closer to the skin, and exposure to cold temperatures can help cool down the rest of the body. Place ice packs or rags dipped in cold water on the wrists, temples, neck, chest, and the insides of the elbows and knees. Leave for 15 to 20 minutes while working or relaxing, then replace as needed.

Keep Curtains Closed 

During the heat of the day, keep curtains pulled shut to prevent the sun (and its strong heat) from entering your home. If you have blackout curtains or shutters, even better. If you don’t have curtains — or your windows are covered with blinds — drape blankets or towels over them instead. Use lighter-colored fabrics, which will reflect light rather draw it in. 

Cross-Ventilate

Pull in cool air from outdoors by placing box fans inside window frames or standing fans in front of them, facing the room. The spinning of the fans will replace the hot air inside with cooler air from the outside. Do this in the morning and the evening especially, when the temperature drops outdoors. 

Better yet, if you have a straight shot between two windows on opposite ends of a room, hallway, or apartment, place fans in both windows, with one facing inwards towards the room and the other facing out. It might seem counterintuitive, but this method will circulate air between the two windows and draw in cooler air while pushing hotter air out. Close the doors of unused rooms so cool air only circulates where it’s needed 

In general, keeping windows and doors open (as long as they are not letting in direct, hot sunlight) will allow better air flow, so throw them wide open!

Avoid Cooking, or Do So Outdoors 

Cooking can really heat up a house. If a hot day is on the way, cook your food for the day in the morning when it’s cool, or meal-prep before a heat wave to have microwavable items on hand. Using a slow cooker will minimize heat as well, or eating meals that don’t need to be heated at all, like cereal, wraps, sandwiches, and salads. If you have access to an outdoor space, fire up the grill to make dinner, or plug in a hotplate to cook outdoors. 

Stay Hydrated

Staying hydrated is crucial to staying cool. Water helps regulate your body’s temperature, which cools itself off through perspiration. While you’re sweating away all day, your body is depleting itself of its water sources, and it needs to be rehydrated frequently. Drink water before you start to feel thirsty, at which point you’re already dehydrated. A tall glass of cold lemonade won’t hurt either. 

Dress Smart 

While you’re surely not dressing up in snow pants and a winter coat, proper clothing can keep your skin cooler during hot weather. Wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothes and open-toed shoes. Items with a lower thread count are generally more breathable, while higher thread counts have a closer knit and trap heat. Linen, cotton, and other natural fabrics are best for staying cool — avoid nylon, acrylic, and other synthetic fabrics.

Get Low 

Because heat rises, the upper levels of the house — especially the attic and top floors — should be avoided, if possible. Move work-from-home gear downstairs, and camp out on the couch if upper bedrooms don’t cool down by bedtime. Basements are generally damper and have less light exposure than higher floors, usually making them the coolest place in the house. Combined with some fans, you’ll have a cooler night’s sleep down below. 

Find a Cooling Center 

If temperatures are dangerously high, or you’re struggling to function in the heat of your home, find a place to spend the day that does have air conditioning. Visit a public library or coffee shop to work or study in the air conditioning, or hang out in a shady park or yard, enjoying the natural breeze during the heat of the day. Many cities also provide cooling centers for residents who don’t have air conditioning. Research cooling centers near you and plan ahead for heat waves. 

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