From treating minor injuries to addressing potentially fatal conditions such as heat stroke, reusable gel packs have become invaluable must-haves at home.
The practice of cryotherapy, or the use of cold therapy to treat various conditions, dates back to 2500 B.C, where ancient Egyptians used it to treat injuries and inflammation.
Historical accounts state that Hippocrates, the Greek physician touted as the father of medicine, documented the benefits of cold therapy. He provided medical advice on the use of cold therapy back in 400 BC: “cold water is to be applied in the following cases: when there is a haemorrhage, or when it is expected.”
If you want to heed Hippocrates’ advice and are planning to purchase gel packs, pore over this article for our suggestions on the most flexible, durable, affordable and all-around best gel packs on the market.
What’s inside cold gel packs?
The first modern-day cold pack was patented in 1959 by Albert A. Robbins. Instead of being used to heal injuries and reduce swelling, Robbins’ invention was designed to keep food and drinks chilly. He called it the “chemical freezing package.”
It took more than a decade for the handy, therapeutic gel pack to take shape, thanks to pharmacist Jacob Spencer. A sales representative for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Spencer in 1971 filed for a patent for a reusable, multi-use gel pack. He described his invention as “a hot and cold compress in a tough, flexible sealed envelope, and a neutral gel within.” True to its purpose, the gel pack was pliable and conformed to all different parts of the body.
Most of the ice gel packs today contain the following components and are non-toxic:
- Propylene glycol: A viscous, colorless and odorless compound that is a vital ingredient for antifreeze.
- Hydroxyethyl cellulose: A thickening and gelling agent derived from cellulose. It is often used in cleaning solutions and cosmetics.
- Vinyl-coated silica gel: An important component of the gel pack as it maintains the cold temperature. It also keeps all the ingredients together.
- Thickening agents: This is responsible for maintaining the compound’s strength.
- Non-toxic blue dye: Allows you to see if your gel pack is leaking. Blue is the universally acknowledged color for most gel packs and Spencer is believed to be responsible for this.
Decades after its invention, the ubiquitous gel pack is close to becoming a fixture in every home. Local stores like Walmart and Walgreens and online selling platforms like Amazon and eBay offer various types of gel packs that are desinged for different needs.
Types of gel packs
- Instant Cold Pack: These ready-to-use packs are activated via a gentle shake or firm squeeze. They do not require to be refrigerated before use. This is great to have in your first aid kit for emergency purposes.
However, they stay cold only for a short period of time and cannot be reused.
- Hot-or-Cold Packs: These packs need to be chilled in a refrigerator prior to use. They are widely available and relatively cheap. Because they hold the temperature for longer, they are more effective in providing relief from pain, swelling and inflammation.
With a plethora of choices, we know it is challenging to pick the right gel pack – but we’re here to help.
What to look for in cold gel packs
To be considered effective, the pack should be able to cover the affected area completely. Before buying, consider which part of your body is at the risk of being hurt or often injured. If you are a runner, shin splints might derail you. If you’re a swimmer, a damaged rotator cuff and other shoulder-related injuries could bother you.
To treat various types of pain and on different parts of your body, this multi-purpose gel pack is your best bet. The pack can be placed on any part of your body – knees, elbows or shoulders – with ease. It stays flexible even when taken directly out from the freezer.
Larger packs work best for your back, thighs and hips, while some are big enough to drape across the shoulders. Targeted relief packs made specifically for feet and ankles, head, face and, yes, the head are also available.
Most gel packs boast of a leak-proof and overall sturdy design, yet only a few manufacturers seem to deliver on this promise. Busted seams and leaking gels are the most common complaint of ice gel pack buyers worldwide. So, before buying, check for gel packs with reinforced edges, as they last longer than the rest.
It’s not enough to apply the gel pack to the affected area. Cold therapy involves the use of compression for suppressing pain and swelling.
We highly recommend ice packs that go into sleeves or pouches and have elastic bands or velcro straps. It’s perfect when you’re free to do other things rather than hold the pack down with your hands, right?
Check how long you need to freeze the gel pack before using it. With this, also check how long it stays frozen. The medically recommended application time is from 10 to 20 minutes. Your packs should be able to stay at a low temperature for longer.
We find packs made of nylon and polyester are comfortable. Ones made of vinyl or plastic? Not so much. It helps to use a cloth or towel to act as a barrier between your skin and the gel pack. In fact, this is imperative to avoid frostbite. If, however, you can use a gel pack directly on your skin without the worries (and burns), that would be better.
Paying anywhere from $15 to $25 for a medium- to large-sized gel pack is reasonable – as long as it is durable, leak-proof, and of premium quality. Of course, the price goes higher with size.
For effective pain and inflammation management, the gel pack should conform to your body shape. A stiff gel pack is as useless as a glass hammer. It makes little sense to wait a few minutes for the pack to thaw out while you’re in pain.
Below are the most flexible ice gel packs, per our research:
|Magic Gel||6x 10.5in||
Too small for use on the entire back
(Large-sized pack sold separately)
No strap or bandage
Too big for knees and elbows
For cold use only
|Flexi Kold||10.5x 14.5in||Nylon||
Shin Shoulder Knee
No strap or bandage (sold separately)
Too big for knees and elbows
For cold use only
|Chattanooga Cool Pak||11x14in||Vinyl||
Vinyl leaves skin soggy
For cold use only
|The Coldest (Water)||6.5 x 11in||Nylon mesh||
Strap too short
Flexibility is only one of the important considerations for a cold gel pack. Considering all the features discussed earlier, here is how the list stands for the best cold gel packs:
Best Overall: Magic Gel Luxury Ice Pack
This multi-use, aptly sized gel pack ticks all the boxes, making it the best bang-for-buck product. It is comfortable, sturdy, and stays flexible even right from the freezer. Because of its size and pliability, it can be used on your neck, ankles, knees, wrist and shoulder. The pack holds cold well and chills fast.
Unlike the other gel packs reviewed, this is the only one that comes with a breathable polyester sleeve and an elastic band that aids in compression. This takes the cake for affordability, flexibility, ease of use and convenience.
It deserves bonus points because it can be used as a warm pack, too.
Flexi Kold Gel Ice Pack
It has a contouring gel filling that offers good coverage. The extra thick nylon exterior features double seams that help prevent gel leaks. It stays cold for an extended amount of time, but like the other products, it does not go with an elastic bandage for proper compression. If not for this, it would have been at the top of the list.
Rester’s Choice Hot & Cold Gel pack
This gel pack is well made with stitched edges ensuring that the gel won’t leak. Unfortunately, the size we reviewed does not go with an elastic band or velcro straps. It is bothersome to have to hold it in place or look for a cloth to use as a bandage.
The absence of a strap and the exclusivity for cold use are deal-breakers, in our opinion.
The Coldest (Water) Reusable Compress
Almost perfect except that it costs more than our best overall cold gel pack. Why spend $23.99 when you could have the same product with the same durability, flexibility and ease of use, for a lesser price?
Runner-Up: Chattanooga Cool Pak Reusable Gel Ice Pack
This pack is on the heavy side, which somehow helps to hold it in place in lieu of a bandage or a strap, except for the joints. Store this properly flattened in the freezer, as it could get lumpy.
Like the rest, it also holds cold for a reasonable period but gets easily damaged if you expose it to heat.
Cheapest Buy: Ace Reusable Cold Compress
The cheapest of the bunch, and can still get the job done, Ace Reusable Cold Compress is priced at $9.13. Manufacturers claim that it’s safe enough to put directly on your skin, and we agree. Thaw it for a bit before putting it on your skin, though, to avoid frostbite.
We are worried about the seams, as it looks like it could burst anytime.
Our final takeaway
Relief and comfort for injuries, pain and swelling come in the form of cold gel packs. Flexibility, durability and affordability are smart considerations, but icing your pain away is not complete without taking some rest, applying compression and elevating the affected area.
Hi! I’m Steve Stretton, manager and owner at Gelpacks.com. If you have questions or if there’s anything we can help you with, drop us a line here.