The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

January 29, 2010

Ice Pack, Heating Pad, Rice Sock

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC, commonly known as vinyl), Polyurethane foam (foam rubber), Polyster. All these poly’s. All non-biodegradable plastics. Not so good for our health or that of the planet, right? And yet so many health products are made from these materials. Take electric heating pads and gel ice packs, for example.

Plastic ice packs & heating pad

My cold packs are made of gel in PVC bags. And my heating pad is made from layers of PVC, polyurethane foam, and synthetic fabric. We worry about the chemicals released when we heat plastic food containers in the microwave: hormone disrupting phthalates, for example. So why would we put PVC in a heating pad? Or in any health product? (See my post about PVC blood and IV bags, for another example.) What’s more, neighborhoods near PVC factories that are subject to emissions of dioxins and vinyl chloride have higher rates of some cancers than other areas of the country.  Healthy products, right?

So what’s the alternative?

Well, for ice packs, we can do what my mom did for us back in the day: ice in a towel. Or ice in a bathtub! After running my marathon in January of 2007 (and by running, I mean jogging, walking, and finally stumbling), my sweet kind sisters put me in the tub and dumped trash cans full of ice all over my aching legs.  (They got the ice from the machine down the hall.  Lucky for us, we were staying in a motel.  But you could prepare buckets of ice ahead of time.)

Beth's legs in ice bath

I hated it at the time, but the ice bath worked so well that I was out partying and dancing with them that night!

Partying after Disney Marathon

So what about that heating pad? Or what if you don’t need the intensity of ice or cold gel? For a lot of you, this will be obvious information. For me, a revelation. And thank god for Twitter and what I learn from the #ecowed discussions every Wednesday. Someone happened to mention “rice socks.” Huh? “What is that,” I asked. I have socks. I have rice. Whatever it is, I can make it.

Turns out they were referring to any one of several cloth packs filled with rice or buckwheat or flax seeds or corn or even cherry pits that you can freeze or heat in the microwave to substitute for plastic heating pads or gel packs. Many Etsy sellers make and sell fancy ones with colorful patterned fabric and essential oils.  (See links above).

Awesome. But like I said, I have socks. I have rice. I can make my own! There are only two instructions.

1) Fill a sock with (uncooked) rice.

2) Tie it shut. I tied mine with twine, but you could just knot the sock itself.

3) Optional: add essential oils or dried plants like lavender.

Then, put it in the freezer…

Rice sock in freezer

or microwave.

Rice sock in microwave

I found the cold rice sock to be perfect for soothing a headache.

Rice sock for headache

So, what are your favorite plastic-free remedies for relieving the swelling of aching muscles or the pain of monthly cramps or (I’m told) pregnancy? Always looking for alternatives to plastic.

You might also enjoy...


Etsy handmade and vintage

I only post ads for companies I patronize myself. Your support helps to fund my plastic-free mission.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

We’ve already got one sock in the freezer, but I woke up with a really sore neck and want to put some on heat it. Can I go straight from freezer to microwave? (Looks like we need to make a second one).

5 years ago

I don’t have a microwave! Would love to know an alternative solution.

6 years ago

reusable dry ice packs ( ) are really helpful in many cases and it can be used again and again.

blah blah
8 years ago

You can make a “rice sock” out of anything that…

1) provides a non-synthetic pouch (cotton is usually the go-to)
2) an organic innard that is dry and retains heat

The outside needs to be non-synthetic, because synthetics can get melted and start a small fire in the microwave. Even socks that have rubber bands can pose a potential problem. So, it’s preferable to just get the all-natural cotton tube sock … ones that don’t have any rubber banding in them to hold them up.

The filling can be any dry staple food… even dried beans work well. So, it really comes down to availability and price. If you use rice, don’t use minute/instant rice. That is very fragile, and will quickly turn into powder that goes through the sock and gets every where. Use parboiled white rice, or brown rice.. anything but instant. Any kind of dried bean works. Dried corn … any kind of staple that provides a relatively smooth surface so it won’t poke you.

When you microwave these things you’ll notice that they come out all steamy. To explain this, first think of a glass of icewater sitting in a room. Water droplets form on the outside of the glass due to condensation. The water vapor in the air hits a surface much colder then the air, and causes the water to condense and form back into liquid.

For rice socks you get the opposite effect. The items inside are dry… they are not producing the moisture. Instead, they are super-heated, so when water vapor in the air hits them they instantly vaporize into a local chain reaction causing steam. Essentially your rice sock is steaming the surrounding water vapor.

For a better ice pack, I would suggest using a substrate that holds cold better … fish gravel. This stuff is cheap, and retains cold like crazy. It’s also small, rounded, and feels like beans instead of pokey rocks. I don’t recommend using a fish gravel sock in the microwave, though, because you never know if some of the gravel rocks have a higher metal content or such and can possible explode.

However, if you’d like to try heated rocks, you can simply boil some large, smooth stones (think river stones that have been smoothed over years), then pull them out. They will quickly dry off due to the vaporizing effect. Put them into a couple layers of socks, and they will also retain heat for a long time.

Out in the wilds it was a common practice to take stones near the fireplace and put them under your bedroll or near your bedroll to act as a warmer. Stone does a very good job of retaining temperatures. You just have to be extra careful with them (especially when heated).

8 years ago

Nylons make perfect little pouches. : )

9 years ago

@CornWarmerz Where is “us”? I’m looking for an eco friendly heating pad!

9 years ago

I’m pregnant with bub #2 & want to put a hot/cold pack in a special fold out bag, I had a hot/cold gel pack & everything fit perfectly, then I realised it was made of PVC & I’m on the warpath after reading up on it, especially since I went to so much trouble to get a PVC free hospital/baby bag. So I ordered a rice pack to fit especially in the pocket in my fold out bag – the dimensions were right but I should’ve double checked the thickness – it’s so bulky that I can’t close my bag unless I pull out other stuff & I REALLY don’t want to – it’s the little bag I want to say to my husband, here’s my labour bag honey cos anything with multiple bags/more than 1 thing confuses him. So I’m really bummed. My question is, is it possible to get a non-plastic hot cold pack that is as thin as the hot/cold gel pack or am I dreaming? Please don’t tell me to make one either, I’m not crafty and I just won’t do it.

13 years ago

Lovin’ your post about microwavable heat pads! I agree with Karen’s post above, microwave heat bags make awesome bed warmers. If you don’t have the time or aren’t feeling crafty, visit us and pick up a soothing,100% all natural, eco-friendly heating pad. They make wonderful gifts for the entire family, Including your pet!

13 years ago

I just found your website. Love it! Thank you for all your tips and dedication! I grew up with hot water bottles (in the UK), we had no heating in the bedrooms. Now my kids all love them in winter too. Gets ’em in bed faster on a cold night. Made of natural rubber. I heat water in the kettle on the stove though which you’re not supposed to do – tap water doesn’t cut it for me.

Millie Barnes
13 years ago

Every year I save cherry pits, clean them and make large (14 x 8) bean bags. Cherry pits are a really desnse wood, they stay warm a loooon time. It’s all I have used as a heating pad for 15 years now. I microwave it about 2 minutes. Stays warm, for over an hour!

Funny about Money
13 years ago

My hot sock is full of oatmeal. Works the same way…very handy, because you can drape it over a sore shoulder and walk around the house–you’re not tethered to an electric cord.

Another way to make a handy cold back is to…uh oh…this one has plastic in it!…well, to take a paper towel and get it wet. Lay the wet paper towel out flat on a ziplock bag. Then put it in the freezer and let it freeze flat. These are extremely handy and as they start to defrost can be molded around a body part. They work very well for migraines.

13 years ago

This is my second winter sleeping with a heated rice bag at my feet and I wish I’d discovered it years ago. I used a couple of cloth produce bags a third filled with rice and tied a knot at the top. The bags are big enough that the rice can be spread around to cover both feet or I can pile it all in the bottom for a concentrated heat. I never thought to add lavendar or oils though. Thank you!

13 years ago

I made rice bags for a number of people for Christmas. I have no idea if anyone uses them except for my Mom. My mom said she used the one I gave my step-father quite a bit – both hot and cold. I use my husband’s (which I gave him for Christmas) as a bed warmer for our feet. I find that the rice bag is too heavy for my neck so I use one filled with something else (don’t know what) that makes it lighter and handy for use with my neck/shoulder.

They are awesome! and cheap! The kids loved helping make the presents. I bought really cheap rice (ok… that came in a plastic bag) and they filled up the bags with rice.

13 years ago

I think hot water bottles may still be made of natural rubber…just beware if you feel a thin spot in the rubber, do not just take it to bed and hope for the best.

Mrs. Money @ Save Green and Live Green
13 years ago

Love these ideas! The bathtub full of ice scares me a little, though!

Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green
13 years ago

I love rice packs. :) I have a few that have lavender in them as well that I often use at night to help me sleep.

13 years ago

What great ideas! I love this blog. I always discover something new. Thanks for all you do to bring such alternatives to our attention.

13 years ago

I love my rice sock! My mom made it for me a few years back when I had hurt my knee. She always had several around the house when we were growing up. Funny though, I never thought of putting it in the freezer. Thanks for the tip!

Cat C-B
13 years ago

Rice socks are excellent… but bodies age.

My 50-year-old body makes it to work these days only with some pretty tech-heavy help. Not only pharmaceuticals in those non-recyclable bottles, but a moist-heat pad that does indeed contain lots of plastic.

I’ve used the rice socks. They’re all right. But with this latest bout with a herniated disc, I find I need more, and I’m grateful for it. I’m dependent on a few pieces of equipment for the ability to walk, drive, and work, and many of these pieces of equipment contain plastic.

The plastic that comes into my life as packaging, or the times I forgot to specify no plastic with something… that I apologize for. The plastic that allows me to move and work… that I am grateful for, and try to care for as well as I can, so that it will (hopefully) long outlast my disability, and be something I can pass along to another aging, suffering body for re-use.

Sometimes plastic is better than the alternative. Not often, but every now and then.

13 years ago

Great ideas! I always learn so much from your blog! :) And I love the frozen washcloth idea! Everything imaginable has been invented that you sometimes forget about simple solutions!

13 years ago

I made a small, wheat filled linen pillow that I heat in wood stove oven. Great for heating a cold bed this time of year.

13 years ago

Ah! Had sudden pain in the wrist while I was reading this. Sadly my oatmeal was the first thing I reached for. Now my wrist smells like oats but the sock did the trick XD. I’ll have to make some rice bags when I finish with my current sewing project. Thanks for the tip!

13 years ago


I make the rice bags also, and I was trying to figure out how to make a chambered one for the same reason to keep the rice more evenly distributed.

So how did you do that? Did you make separate pouches for the rice and then sew each part of the tea towel as you went along?

I couldn’t figure out how to keep each bit of rice in one section as I went along!

There must be a trick to this! Any suggestions appreciated. Thanks.

13 years ago

Thank you! I’ve been considering buying a hot water bottle to use instead of a heating pad, but was unsure about what they are made out of. This sounds like an even better alternative.

Sage Norbury
13 years ago

I’ve been using a “frozen towel” for 20 years for my cold pack. I take a hand towel, wet it, wring it out, and place it in the freezer (so it can lay flat). When it’s frozen, wrap it in a thin cloth, and use on your “boo boo”. When it starts to thaw, simply refreeze. I use a rice bag for hot needs. Of course, I’ve made a fancy, schmancy cover for the rice bag.

Elizabeth B
13 years ago

Oh man, this is a great, great tip. I have chronic tendonitis in both arms; in fact, I’m sitting here icing my arms right now. It’s been bugging me that I keep having to buy the plastic ice packs (they last about a year before springing with the heavy use I put them to). I’ll give these ideas a try. Thank you, Beth!

13 years ago

I take washclothes, get them wet and wring them out, then freeze them. They work great for compresses. Also awesome as baby teethers, esp during those first few teeth. Actually, my autistic sons still love them, they seem to be very comforting.

And the opposite works, too. Wring out a washcloth or towel, and then microwave it for a few seconds till hot. Be careful removing it, they can be steaming.

13 years ago

My mom just told me about this last week when my shoulder was killing me. She’s not so green but very frugal and suggested I alternate between the sock and ice packs. It works great as a heat pack but I didn’t know it would work well as a cold pack too. About to make another and stick it in the freezer. Thanks :o)

Sierra Black
13 years ago

You just want to be a little careful when you make these to sterilize the rice or grains or whatever before you use them – I think you can do that by baking them at a low temperature for a few hours.

A friend of mine had some buckwheat nursing pads her sister-in-law gave her, and after a few uses they sprouted!!! Gross, and it ruined them for future use.

13 years ago

The rice in a sock is just what I need for my headaches. I never would have thought that it would work as an ice pack. I’m definitely going to try this, so thanks for posting about it.

13 years ago

I received a cherry-pit bag in a sewing swap. I find it to be really soothing when heated in the microwave and placed on my frequently aching neck. I also made a couple of “boo-boo bunnies” which are basically terry wash cloths that have been rolled up and tied with a rubber band. They have a hole in the bottom big enough to hold one ice cube. Good for the kids.

And for menstrual cramps? A warm bath is what has always been my last resort when nothing else was doing the trick. I never sit still long enough for heating pads and the like.


Lara S.
13 years ago

This is not completely related, but this post reminded me of a plastic-free health tip I’d like to share: my natural doctor recommends using a moist cloth on the tummy to relieve many illnesses, since she says many pains are caused by an inflammation of the stomach or bowels, these include not only discomforts in those areas, but also colds, bronchitis and other usual problems of the respiratory system. She says the damp cloth helps reduce the inflammation.
My mother has tried it many times and had a good result with colds. Also, it’s nice to have something fresh in summer, but you can do it in a cold weather too: just place the moist cloth and put a sweater on it, it’ll work anyway. The cloth has to be re-dampened every few hours.

13 years ago

speaking of pregnancy pain… my sister just gave birth on 1/20 and afterwards they gave her an ‘ice diaper’ to wear, which is, as you can imagine, a diaper filled with ice. This is apparently a wonderful thing. Not sure if this relates, but it’s kinda funny.

8 years ago
Reply to  monkeyjen

I’ve had 4 children and this is the first I’ve heard of an ice diaper. Interesting but don’t think I could take the cold.

13 years ago

“(When you start smelling cherry pie, they are ready.)” awesome, lol

Myscha Theriault
13 years ago

Hi Beth,

Great post! I’ve done the rice thing inside a knotted off old pillow case for some time as a replacement for a heating pad when I’m too lazy to put hot water in the rubber water bottle. The sock sounds like a great idea for smaller, more localized needs. Also, I had never thought about putting it in the freezer. Cool idea.

The Raven
13 years ago

We often put our cherry pit bags in the oven after cooking dinner. I like lining up our three heating bags in a glass lasagna pan. If you stick them in right as you are turning off the oven, they warm passively and seem to stay hot a little longer than when they are microwaved. (When you start smelling cherry pie, they are ready.)

13 years ago

This is exactly how we do cold/heat at our house. Sometimes I grab a fistful of ice and put it in a towel and clamp it shut with a clothespin for bumps/bruises. Free and plastic free!

Condo Blues
13 years ago

I made chambered microwave heating pads from rice and a tea towel The chambers keep the rice from falling away from the place you are trying to heat. I used tea towels so I could use them for moist heat. I made a few for Christmas gifts and they went over very well. For those I added dried mint from my garden to the rice chambers before I sewed them up. They smell so minty good when heated. And it was an excellent way to help me use up the ton of mint I dried from my garden – I have way more than I can drink for tea!

For cold, I have an old school ice bag. I haven’t checked but I suspect the rubberized material may be a type of plastic. In a pinch, I have used a bag of peas from the freezer. Yes, they are in a plastic bag but it least it is less likely to leach in the freezer than if I bought canned peas (yuck! hate the taste of canned food.) And after I eat the peas, I use the bag as a pick up bag for my dog because my city requires me to bag it.

13 years ago

Great idea Beth! I’m injuring myself all the time. By now I already have a huge amount of cold packs in my freezer but I like the rice idea.

The one thing I don’t know how to do is make a hot pack without a microwave. For now I use my heating pad, but it would be nice to have an alternative. And I’m never buying a microwave!!

5 years ago
Reply to  AJP

Agreed, AJP! Why have a microwave just for rice/corn bags? They’re not good/safe for heating food.