Battle of the Hands: Mittens vs. Gloves

Tis the season for frozen fingers and numb thumbs trying to type on a small phone keyboard. If you’re like me, you like We can wear puffy coats but our hands are unprotected from the wintry winds. So how should we keep our hands warm? Are gloves better at keeping our fingers warm or should we shift our attention to mittens? In order to answer these questions, we need to understand a few things about how the body and the world work.

If you were to lose a part of your body, which part would you want to go first? Probably a toe, a finger… but probably not your head or heart. Our bodies have evolved to preserve the important parts (vital organs), so our appendages get cold first. This is great and all, you know, living, but it does mean we are faced with popsicles for fingers.

And the winner is…

Gloves provide individual protection for each finger, while mittens encase most of your fingers in one compartment. What are the advantages and disadvantages of these differences? Heat is continuously generated in the body through various metabolic processes (a topic for another time) and is exchanged within our body as well with our external surroundings. Generally, heat is transferred in four ways: conduction, convection, evaporation and radiation. In a system, heat cannot be created or destroyed: this is the First Law of Thermodynamics. So if our fingers are individually separated, like in the case of gloves, heat from our fingers is being transferred to the surface of the gloves themselves. Heat is moving to the gloves because heat will move from a hotter object to a cooler one. On the other hand (Ha!), mittens allow the fingers to come into contact with each other. This means that heat that is lost from one finger can be transferred to another finger. It’s a win-win-win-win, thank you physics! This heat can be “trapped” and provides insulation.

So if you find yourself at a store asking yourself “Should I get mittens or gloves?” Here is your answer: Mittens if your goal is warmth, gloves if you want to be able to carry out complex tasks at hand and glittens (fingerless gloves with a mitten flap) if you are fancy! If going to a store is too much trouble, keeping your hands in your coat pocket will do the trick and your thumb can get in on the heat transfer party. 

A Look Backstage (Sources)

Fox, R.H., Wyatt, H.T. (1962). Cold-induced vasodilation in various areas of the body surface of  man. Journal of Physiology, 162, 289-297.

Holmer, I. (1985).Heat exchange and thermal insulation compared in woolen and nylon    garments during wear trials. Textile Research Journal, 55(9), 511-518.

Huizenga, C. (2004). Skin and core temperature response to partial and whole body heating and  cooling. Journal of Thermal Biology, 29(7), 549-558. 

Iserson, K. (2016). Glove and mitten protection in extreme cold weather: an Antarctic study.   International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 75, 33564. 

Thermopedia. Body (human) heat transfer. Retrieved from http://www.thermopedia.com/content/ 587/

Siena is a Neuroscience undergraduate at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her passions include education, writing and sustainability. When she's not studying or volunteering, she is preoccupied with a new DIY activity or art project.