So, what is the difference between an instant ice pack, a gel pack, and a traditional ice pack?

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So, what is the difference between an instant ice pack, a gel pack, and a traditional ice pack?

Ice packs are commonly seen as the modern alternative to traditional ice bags. They have been around as early as 1959, and their invention has given way to several iterations made for various purposes. You may have heard about them before and have seen several different kinds of ice packs and gel packs in stores or online. Have you wondered what makes them all different? Not to mention, which one to get for different purposes? 

An ice pack or a gel pack is any bag filled with water, refrigerant gel, or liquid that is commonly used to keep food chilled in portable coolers. They are also used as a cold compress to relieve pain in minor injuries or as added packaging materials to keep products cool in insulated shipping containers during transport. There are two kinds of ice packs: instant ice packs and reusable gel packsAnd while one may be easily confused for the other, the two have quite a few stark differences between them. We will break down these differences for you and offer advice on how to best use each one.

What are instant ice packs?

Instant ice packs are made with freezing gel inside plastic bags. They freeze instantly through a chemical reaction and, unlike traditional ice packs, instant ice packs do not need to be stored in a freezer. They are capable of maintaining extremely low temperatures for a long period of time. 

What are instant ice packs made of? 

Instant ice packs contain two non-toxic chemicals in separate pouches. Squeezing the ice pack causes the pouches to burst, allowing the chemicals inside to create an endothermic reaction that instantly lowers the temperature of the pack. An instant ice pack lasts for about 3-4 hours, although this can vary depending on the ambient temperature of the surrounding environment.

What are instant ice packs good for? 

The main advantage of the instant ice pack is that they are portable and can be carried in your first aid kit at all times. They do not need to be kept cool and are ready to use when needed. 

Instant ice packs are good for therapeutic use. They are especially useful in emergency situations since they can be transported at room temperature. Instant ice packs can also be stored in coolers to preserve meat, dairy products and other types of food. 

How Do You Dispose Of Instant Cold Packs Safely?

Although the activated contents are considered non-toxic, you still need to properly dispose of instant cold packs. Avoid puncturing the bag to prevent leaking or soaking other medical equipment. If the instant ice packs are indeed punctured, do not drain them of their contents in the sink as they may cause clogging. After using, the instant cold pack can be disposed of safely in your trash. 

What are reusable gel packs, then?

Gel packs, also known as hot and cold packs, are nice alternatives (or complements) to the instant ice pack. The reusable nature of gel packs means they can be used over and over again simply by placing them back in the freezer. Reusable gel packs, however, are not suitable if you are on the move or if you need to use them right away as they always need to be frozen before use.

What are reusable gel packs made of? 

Like instant ice packs, reusable gel packs are made of non-toxic materials that will remain a slow-flowing gel state. It will not spill easily or cause contamination in case the container breaks. Gel packs can also be made by adding hydroxyethyl cellulose (Cellusize), sodium polyacrylate or a vinyl-coated silica gel.

What are reusable gel packs good for? 

Since they remain flexible even when frozen, reusable gel packs are much more efficient in cold therapy treatment than instant cold packs. An additional advantage of the reusable gel packs is its versatility; they can be used for hot therapy, as well. The reusable gel packs can be heated in a bowl of water in a microwave and are best soothing muscles and joints aches and pains.

Caring for your gel packs

Gel packs are very easy to maintain. When taken care of properly, they can last a long time.

If you’re mainly using them for cold therapy, make sure to lay them flat in your fridge so they remain pliant once you’re ready to use them.

You can wash them with water and mild soap after use. Wipe them dry before putting them back in the fridge or medicine cabinet. Do not drop or overheat your gel packs to avoid punctures.

Are instant packs or gel packs as good as ice?

According to most experts, a well-stocked first aid kit should include an instant ice pack or gel packs . Applying a cold compress with either an instant pack or gel pack to an injured ankle is universally accepted as the best practice by athletic trainers and other health care professionals immediately after acute ankle injury, among other sports injuries.

However, while instant cold or gel packs are easy to store and are more convenient than natural ice, experts advise caution when applying chemical cold packs. Below-freezing temperatures and direct exposure to the skin can cause tissue damage. Because ice doesn’t stay as drastically cold as a gel pack can, for instance, it is safer, and thus preferable to cold or gel packs. To reduce the risk of injury, use a wet towel in between the skin and the gel pack. 

Which one should I use? 

We’d say that while ice packs are indeed portable and easy to use, reusable gel packs are designed for therapeutic purposes. A good reusable gel pack should be able to follow the contours of your body and is large enough to wrap around the problem area, or comfortable to use in any position. 

Got a question or anything I can help with?  My name is Steve Stretton, I’m the owner and manager at and you can drop me a line here. Good luck!


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