I don’t know how many times I’ve stood at the clothesline or in front of a dryer that finished ages ago and wondered if my clothing was wet or just cold. Surely these two sensations should be distinguishable.
When I first heard the reason for why we can’t figure this seemingly simple thing out, I was fascinated. And, I’ve also found some good solutions to the problem.
Humans cannot actually detect wetness, so cold and wet "sensations" overlap. To tell if clothes are wet or just cold, the material can be pressed against the cheek or lips. Pressing a tissue to the fabric will also reveal if it is wet. Heating up the dryer will also work.
Why It Is so Hard to Tell the Difference
It is so difficult for humans to tell the difference between whether something is cold or wet because we don’t have hygroreceptors, which are sensory receptors (similar to pain and pressure sensors) that specifically detect moisture.
Instead, humans use sensory cues that help us “feel” or reach conclusions about whether or not we are sensing wetness. Essentially, humans don’t feel water as water, but rather, wetness is perceived through a combination of coldness, texture, and pressure.
With not having hygroreceptors, we have evolved to trick ourselves into thinking we feel something wet, when really it is just a combination of features not directly related to wetness.
When feeling something wet, it is like our brain is telling us, “I think that thing is wet” rather than a definitive, “That thing is wet.”
It has even been shown that when encountering substances that are wet, when touching them, there is less nerve activity than when touching things which we do have particular receptors for (textures, heat, etc.).
So, how do we un-trick our senses? Well, there are a couple of techniques that you can try.
To find out if your clothes are wet or cold, holding them up to your cheek for a minute or so can be helpful.
The most sensitive part of your body when it comes to temperature detection is your face, with your cheek, lips, and nose being some of the most sensitive areas.
This makes sense, too, when you think about walking around on a frigid day. It seems that your cheeks, nose, and lips get hit by the cold the hardest. Just think about the parts of your face that get red in the cold!
Holding the clothes to your cheek rather than just feeling with your hands offers the stimulus to an area that is much more sensitive, and therefore, better equipped for making conclusions about wetness and/or coldness.
Holding the clothes there for a longer duration also helps the sensors to have an in-depth feel for what they are in contact with.
The lips are some of the best parts of your body to differentiate between cold and wet. This is because they have over a million different nerve endings, and are actually 100 times more sensitive than your fingertips.
Holding clothes to your lips then will be very helpful in identifying if the clothes are wet or just cold.
There are also fewer layers of skin on your lips compared to elsewhere on your body, which means the nerve endings are even closer to the stimulus and get a better sense of what they are encountering.
When doing the cheek test, I recommended holding the clothes there for a minute or so. When doing a lip test, you should be able to notice whether the clothes are cold or wet almost instantly, 10 seconds max.
This is the test that I tend to use most often.
A tissue test is an almost surefire way to find out if your clothes are wet or if they are just cold.
Grab a tissue, or paper towel, and press it into your clothes with some force, but be sure not to press so hard that you rip the tissue.
I found that doing this test and pushing on the tissue with a flat item (like a book or folder) helps to avoid rips because the pressure is applied more broadly.
Crumpling the tissue can also help avoid rips when doing the test.
If the clothes are wet, the tissue will absorb some of the wetness and it will be plainly visible on the tissue. If the clothes are just cold, most likely there will be no effect on the tissue other than a temperature change.
Warm up the Dryer
If you are checking on clothes that have been in the dryer for a couple of hours since the cycle has finished, odds are the clothes are just cold. Running the dryer for five minutes or so (if you have this option) will help heat the clothes.
This will also help you to see if the clothes were actually still wet and not just cold. If they were just cold, then the clothes will come out warm and with the same feeling texture-wise as when they were cooler.
If the clothes were wet, you should notice any significant change in the texture of the clothes, and how heavy they well. Damp clothes will be heavier than dry clothes, and the texture between the two will also be different.